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After two dogs drown, some raise concerns about Vashon’s abandoned wells

Theo and TJ drowned in an abandoned well last month.  - Courtesy Photo
Theo and TJ drowned in an abandoned well last month.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

When two yellow Labradors went missing in mid-April, Amy Carey, an animal activist who’s been involved in plenty of dog searches over the years, had a bad feeling.

Only five months earlier, another pair of dogs that had disappeared had been found alive at the bottom of an abandoned well. Fearing this pair may have also fallen into a well, Carey and other volunteers began searching the forests and following up on leads, working quickly, she said, because “the clock was ticking.”

Last week, the dogs — Theo, 3, and TJ, 2 — were found, drowned in an old well less than a half-mile from the Maury Island home they’d slipped out of on April 12.

Now, in the wake of the two incidents, one of which ended tragically, Carey and other animal activists are calling for a coordinated effort to locate the Island’s abandoned wells and cisterns and fill them in — before another dog or, even worse, a child meets a similar fate.

Carey, a high-profile Islander who played a lead role in the fight against Glacier Northwest’s mine proposal, has been in contact with King County officials to discuss the situation. She’s also been in touch with other animal activists and plans to work with some of them to form a task force to begin figuring out how to address the situation.

“We know we need to make some kind of formal effort,” Carey said. “This has been a real trigger for something more formal to be initiated.”

Barbara Drinkwater, the dog coordinator for Vashon Island Pet Protectors, said she hopes there will be “a groundswell” in response. 

“I don’t think we have any idea how many of these are on the Island ... We could lose a 4-year-old. It’s just awful,” she said.

The Island’s abandoned wells and cisterns stem from a time when Vashon was far more agrarian than it is today, Carey said. Shallow, hand-dug wells or cisterns were often located out in the fields next to row crops, where the water they provided could be used for irrigation. Much of the Island is now forested, but some of those wells — now surrounded by trees or enveloped by underbrush — still exist.

Carey, who spent months looking for one of her own dogs after she slipped into the woods last year, said she saw several abandoned wells in the course of her search. 

“They’re not pronounced. There’s nothing above ground that’s visible. Vegetation grows over it,” she said.

Others, in the wake of these two accidents, have also told her about abandoned wells they know of in woods near their own homes. 

“I think we’re starting to learn that this has been a more prevalent problem than we realized,” Carey said.

Indeed, according to state officials, there are likely thousands of abandoned wells in King and Kitsap counties, and every year, they say, they get reports of dogs and sometimes horses or donkeys falling into these often deep, wide-mouthed cavities. Bill Lum, the well construction and licensing coordinator for the state Department of Ecology, said he receives anecdotal reports frequently.

A person hasn’t died from such an incident in Washington recently, he said, “But I hear about dogs falling into dug wells several times a year.”

Abandoned wells, however, are illegal under state law. The state’s Well Construction Act, passed into law in 1971, requires property owners to decommission any abandoned wells or cisterns on their property, filling them in not with dirt but with cement, bentonite clay or grout — materials that ensure the cavity is solid and won’t collapse over time, Lum said.

The state doesn’t have enforcement crews looking for such situations, nor has it fined anyone for having an abandoned well in quite some time. What’s more, decommissioning a well properly is expensive; it can easily cost a few thousand dollars, Lum said. As a result, the state will sometimes allow a property owner to cover a well securely, requiring that it be filled when the property owner sells the parcel or files for a building permit.

“I think it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. But it’s difficult and can be expensive and time-consuming,” Lum said.

On Vashon, there have been a handful of incidents involving dogs and wells over the last few years. A dog drowned in 2006 after it fell into a cistern at Lisabeula. A couple of years ago, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue successfully hoisted a dog out of a well. 

Then, in December, Vashon High School teacher Harris Levinson — after weeks of searching — found his two dogs in the bottom of a 30-foot dry well located on his next-door neighbor’s property, a forested, 10-acre swath. Both were thin but alive; they, too, were rescued by VIFR.

In this instance, Marcia England, whose family owned the two dogs, said the yellow labs — Theo was the father of TJ — were beloved family pets that accidentally got out of their home on April 12. Once the call went out to the Island’s dog community that the pair was lost, England said, she was amazed and touched by how various people — especially Carey — jumped in to try to find them.

Large posters started popping up all over the Island. Sightings were reported. An ad was placed in The Beachcomber. And Carey, worried about another potential well accident, began poring over aerial maps, trying to determine where an abandoned well near the Englands’ property might be located.

England found Carey’s obsession with wells “weird and far-fetched. ... I thought that it was like a myth,” she said.

But Carey and another Islander, Linda Boccancelli, knew the dangers of wells and started talking to people near the Englands’ home, hoping for a lead. When she heard from a long-time Islander about a well he recalled seeing some 30 years ago in what is now a forested area near the Englands’ house, Carey figured out who now owned the property and called them.

“They checked and found them,” Carey said, declining to note the property’s location or the couple.

The couple, she said, thought the well was covered or fenced. “They were devastated,” she said.

England said her family was also devastated by the news. During a phone interview, she struggled, at times, to talk about the event. “This is such a tragedy,” she said. 

Now that she knows about the problem with old wells on Vashon, she said she hopes Islanders who own large pieces of land will figure out if they have a well in some little-explored corner of their property — before another accident occurs.

“What if this had been a kid?” she asked. “I love my dogs like nobody’s business, but what if it were a kid?”

 

Amy Carey is collecting information about abandoned wells, cisterns or other holes on Vashon that need to be filled. Those with information or who would like to join a new task force to try to address the issue should email her at vashonwells@gmail.com.

Or if you have an abandoned well on your property and want advice about what to do with it, call the state Department of Ecology at (425) 649-7044 or the King County-Seattle Public Health Department at 205-4394

 

 

 

Community Events, April 2014

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