State should step in to help assure safe water

For much of the 20th century, peaches from the Sandhills region of North Carolina were highly prized. National Public Radio used to hold annual conversations with growers from the region, extolling the virtues of the sweet, fuzzy fruit.

These days such a conversation might be bitter. Tests show at least 117 water wells supplying residents of three Sandhills counties are tainted -- two-thirds of them at levels unsafe to drink.

As the Observer's Bruce Henderson reported the other day, the same sandy soil that made for such good growing conditions also absorbed and funneled chemicals that growers spread on the land to discourage pests and help peach trees thrive. Pesticides linked to cancer have contaminated wells that residents are just now finding out were tainted years ago in Montgomery, Richmond and Moore counties.

Public health departments have recognized the danger and have supplied five-gallon containers of drinking water to affected residents who no longer can trust their well water. Local officials continue to find contamination from pesticides used as long as half a century ago. "What we don't know is whether this is the end of it," said Richmond County Manager Jim Haynes. "That's the scary part."

Scary indeed. Officials say that contamination levels 55 times higher than the federal safe drinking-water standard have been detected. Some families have a high incidence of cancer or other ills.

Everyone needs access to safe drinking-water supplies. The best way would be extending water lines to their homes. Local officials are trying to find grants that will pay for the extension, but unless the state helps cut red tape and speed up construction, many citizens will be left to cope as best they can.

But because contamination levels are not as high as they might be, official concern isn't that high, either. In fact, the state advised Montgomery County officials not to spread the alarm until officials knew more about the danger, the Observer reported. That caution may have seemed a responsible thing from the state's point of view, but for residents of an area where well water isn't fit to drink, it's the height of irresponsibility and indecency.

It's time for the state to exercise more leadership, see to it that an adequate well-testing program assesses the problem across the region and take steps to make water supply lines available to as many residents as is practical. The official response so far may have only poisoned the atmosphere of public discussion. Further delay may poison more residents.