Contaminated Groundwater: Common Causes and Remedies

Environmental scientists often tell us worrying things about water. They say that global warming is melting the polar ice caps and that this melted ice could lead to islands sinking and inhabited land masses submerging. We’ve also noticed that hurricanes and tsunamis are increasing in frequency, force, and damage, even in previously ‘safe’ areas.

This kind of water is different though because it’s largely salt water from oceans and seas, so it sometimes seems theoretical and remote. There’s a different kind of water damage that is easier for us to understand. See, the water that we use every day to drink, shower, cook, and even fill our swimming pools comes from the ground.

Several metres below the surfaces we walk on, there are vast deposits of water. We harvest this water, clean it, treat it, and put it into our taps, pipes, and water dispensers. We also collect water from rain, freshwater rivers, and lakes, then redistribute it into modern homes.

Since both these sources originate underground, they can easily get polluted by substances that seep into the soil. Every time you spill water and other dirty substances on the ground, it seeps beneath the surface and fills the groundwater with murk. Some of this pollution reaches rivers and lakes as well.

And because we can’t use sea water without expensive desalination processes that remove the salt, then contaminating our main source of usable water can and does greatly affect the volumes of water we have access to. That’s what makes it a finite resource.

There are many different things that contaminate groundwater. Basically, anything that is poured on unpaved floors has the potential to seep deep enough to affect the water. If the substance you poured is biodegradable, like organic garbage, then it will look and smell bad, but it will eventually rot and be absorbed biomechanically.

Substances like this won’t do much harm to groundwater because, by the time they reach it, they have been broken down into their natural mineral constituents. Garbage is more harmful to surface water (lakes, rivers, ponds) because it gets into the water before it has broken down, so it reaches the water as raw, unprocessed, smelly dirt.

However, there are other kinds of garbage that are synthetic. These include plastics, chemicals, and metals. These can stay in the ground for years or even centuries without changing form, so when they hit the groundwater, they are as toxic as they’ve ever been and can find their way back to us, causing all sorts of damage.

Imagine digging a well a hundred years from now, and when you try to collect some drinking water, your cup gets filled with bits of polythene. That’s why recycling is so important. It takes these non-biodegradable products and treats them or re-uses them to keep them out of the soil, and subsequently out of the groundwater.

Industrial pollution is another risk factor for groundwater. Factories often produce a lot of smoke and toxic aerosols. These gases get into the atmosphere and can sometimes form clouds and fall as acid rain, which then leeches into the soil.

These same factories frequently dispose of their industrial wastewater by pouring it into the ground, where it seeps down and integrates with the groundwater. It’s not just water that gets dumped in this way. Often used oil and other petroleum-based fluids get dumped on the ground as well, and they work their way into underground water sources.

Other sources of pollution include inadequate sewer systems, landfills, agricultural fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, improperly disposed animal waste, agricultural waste, hospital waste, and naturally toxic substances like radon and arsenic.

In the construction and mining industries, workers often get into direct contact with groundwater. They have to sift through it to find the products they’re mining, or suck it out as they lay construction foundations. In the process, this water gets filled with all kinds of industrial contaminants, from oil to extraction chemicals.

While it’s impractical to freeze pollutant industries altogether, there’s still a lot that can be done to protect the groundwater. In the agricultural sector, farmers are encouraged to use organic supplements that will biodegrade and do less damage when they leach into the soil.

Commercial and domestic garbage contractors are helping people to sort their trash. Re-usable materials can be taken to recycling plants and repurposed, while the organic trash can be composted to enrich the soil as well as the groundwater.

In industrial set-ups, wastewater and used liquids have to be filtered before they are released into the environment. If they are poured back into the ground as is, then all the pollutants go right back into the groundwater deposits.

Machines like Vacumatic Dewatering Systems are used on construction sites. Dewatering screens are placed beneath the collection points of unearthed groundwater. The vacuum sucks filtered water back into the ground, leaving chemical contaminants on the surface where they can be collected and disposed elsewhere in an environmentally friendly way.

Another option is to pour all the wastewater into a High-Speed Vertical Basket Centrifuge. The machine will separate the water from sludge and other contaminants, producing re-usable water and a solid waste cake. The water can be safely released into the ground to replenish the water table, while the dry waste can be safely and appropriately disposed of.

Protecting the water table is essential to the survival of the human race, and we already have the technology in place to do so. Unfortunately, conserving the environment involves time and money. We need to shift our attitudes and realise it’s worth the effort. Doing things the ‘easy’ way and maintaining pollution will eventually cost us more and do more harm.

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