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Well covers not as safe as they seem

Mark Bertolino’s voice broke as he described his granddaughter’s last morning.

Lia, just 20 months old, went out to the barn with her dad one morning this past July, just as she did every day. Her mom and 6-year-old brother were in the yard, too. She was toddling back toward the house with the family’s two heeler dogs, not more than a hundred feet from either parent. From the barn, her dad looked back toward the house, saw the heelers walking around strangely and knew something was wrong.

Lia had just disappeared. They looked all over. Then her brother noticed a 10-inch hole in the concrete well cover. They spotted her doll inside. Lia had fallen in, possibly hitting her head as she fell, and drowned. Rescue crews worked for three hours to revive her, but they couldn’t help. She died that day.

“A week before, I’d have said it wasn’t possible for her to fall through,” says Mark, a Witt farmer. “We’re not talking some old rickety wooden top.”

In fact, his other son, a strapping 21-year-old, had stood on the well cover just three days before Lia fell through. Lia weighed 29 pounds.

Looked safe

“Had the concrete deteriorated?” Mark wonders. The cover was built like a tank, but without rebar — a surprise to the Bertolinos. The well was probably 60 to 80 years old; it’s hard telling when the cap was poured. On one edge, the concrete had begun to flake, but not enough to make anyone think it was unsafe. Mark says the hole that collapsed beneath Lia was hardly bigger than her feet.

Wells like that are common across the Midwest, often located fairly close to the house. Some are still in use, while others, like the Bertolinos’ well, have been abandoned in favor of rural water lines. Mark is an avid hunter and says he’s come across plenty of old wells in the timber that don’t even have a cover.

He says in the months since Lia’s death, folks from all over the state have contacted his family, sharing stories of how they’ve filled in old wells.

And while statistics on farm-related deaths don’t show accidents like Lia’s to be common — in fact, none were recorded in Illinois in recent history — the accident serves as a reminder to check well covers and fill in unused wells.

“That concrete looked safe. We thought it was safe.” It’s a sentiment Mark repeats often, as though he can still hardly believe what happened. He and Lia’s dad took a backhoe and filled in the well within a week of her death.

“I can’t think of anything worse than losing one of your children,” he adds. “You just can’t quite grasp it. There’s always a lot of questions that can’t be answered. We’re obviously broken.

“It’s never going to be the same, and you’re never going to get over it. It breaks your heart every day, and it will until you die.

“But maybe this will help somebody else. And the loss won’t be in vain.”

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FARM GIRL:
Lia Marie Bertolino died July 13, at just 20 months old. She was the daughter of Andrew and Megan Bertolino.

How to fill in an abandoned well

Abandoned wells can pose risks to both safety and groundwater quality, according to Mike Rahe, who heads the office of Natural Resources Management at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Property owners who would like to seal an abandoned well are eligible for cost-share monies through local soil and water conservation districts in the amount of 60% of the actual cost, up to a maximum of $400 (for dug wells), so long as they follow established guidelines.

Here are the steps to closing a well, as recommended by University of Illinois Extension and the Illinois Department of Public Health:

Submit a sealing plan to the local public health department. Notify that department at least 48 hours before sealing. Remove all material from the well. Measure depth, diameter and static water level. Remove debris. Disinfect the well following Illinois Water Well Code. Seal it according to an approved plan. Complete and submit a sealing report to the local public health department within 30 days of sealing the well.

If your well is still in use, routinely check the cover, including concrete ones like the Bertolinos had, for stability. Rahe also recommends a fence made of cattle panels or wooden gates to keep animals and small children away.

Chip Petrie, U of I farm safety specialist, adds, “Even if you put a fence around it, you need a secure top that would preclude the need for a fence. Kids do the darnedest things.”

Locate your wells

The Illinois State Water Survey keeps a database of domestic wells, as reported to them by landowners over time. Visit www.isws.illinois.edu/data/gwdb to access it.

Seal it right

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FILL ’ER UP: It doesn’t take a lot to fill in an old dug well, as shown here. Knock in the brick lining, fill it with dirt, and top with bentonite clay and topsoil. Source: University of Illinois Extension

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NO DIFFERENT: The cap on the Bertolinos’ well was 6 feet across, with a 20-by-24-inch pad that was 3.5 inches thick covering the old center hole. “This thing would weigh 75 to 100 pounds,” Mark Bertolino says.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.