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Stirring the Waters

Search for Central Water System Proves Futile For One Family

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Allen Adkins and his silbings live off this curve in Harless Fork Road, in Lincoln County. Adkins remembers his father thought he'd die before seeing a paved road cut through the hollow. Today, Adkins wonders if he will feel the same about water. Photo: Greg Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

In Southern West Virginia, reliable access to clean water doesn’t just mean getting what you pay for. Sometimes, you don’t have the opportunity to pay for it.

Allen Adkins has been trying for years to get water lines extended to his Lincoln County home. Without that, he and his family are left to depend on a set of wells that leaves them uncertain how long water will last each day.

“It’s just constantly watching the water — knowing how many seconds or minutes you can turn it on in the morning for breakfast and have enough left to last you for a bath at night,” said Adkins, a resident of Branchland. “It’s constant math, constant thinking, but I guess we’re used to it now.”

Adkins has lived in his hollow off Harless Fork Road for most of his life. His father built the house Adkins lives in now, his sister is right next door, his brother lives up the road, and Adkins owns another house a bit further back in the hills.

In his decades in the area, Adkins has drilled three wells on his current property, and several at other houses. His habit of counting developed years ago, after his first well began to run dry and he started to pick up on the signs. His current well has performed the best out of the three, only drying up temporarily a handful of times in the six or so years he’s had it. Still, he constantly worries what will happen when it — inevitably — goes dry permanently. He paid $3,000 to drill his last well, a steep price for the 65-year-old retiree, and he doesn’t think there’s much viable land left on his property to drill another one.

“We’re going to have to cut through those trees back there, behind the barn [to drill another well],” he said, pointing out his kitchen window, where a barn peeks through the woods, about two football field lengths away. “I don’t know if I can do it. I mean, I guess I can, I’ll have to, but it’s all getting exhausting.”

In 2013, Adkins and several of his neighbors and family members filed formal complaints with the West Virginia PSC. They wanted any of the surrounding water districts to extend service to their hollow.

“We have three water companies coming through [this area], and we can’t get either one,” his brother, Randy Adkins, who lives nearby, wrote on the complaint form.

On a line asking what remedy he sought, Randy Adkins wrote just four words: “To get clean water.”

Well water, when treated correctly and maintained, can produce perfectly drinkable water, but Allen Adkins does not trust his wells. Water testing has returned mixed results, and he doesn’t see himself paying for such tests regularly — between $100 and $200 for the testing itself, and depending on what’s found, up to hundreds more for chemicals to treat the water.

He’s been doing this for so long, the costs have added up, and he’s growing tired.

“So we just don’t drink it — it’s fine for bathing and laundry and all that, but we keep bottles around for drinking and cooking,” Adkins said, pointing behind him to the stove, where his son scrambled eggs for his granddaughter’s breakfast. “This would all be much easier, everything for us would be, if we could just get connected to something.”

In 2011, according to Adkins and the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the Branchland-Midkiff Public Service District had plans and money for an extension that would run lines right to the Adkins property.

Allen Adkins and about 10 others paid a tap fee — $250 each — and waited. The water never came.

They were told the district ran out of money before the project reached their neighborhood. A staff memo issued by the PSC after complaints filed by the Adkinses indicates that’s true — cost estimates from the project engineer showed there wasn’t enough money.

If the Adkinses and their neighbors wanted to be connected to a water system, the PSC memo reads, they would need to pay $20,000 per customer.

When PSC engineers and other staff member weighs the benefits of an infrastructure project against how many people would benefit and the utility’s financial standing, it may find the project “monetarily infeasible,” meaning it can’t qualify for state funding. If that happens, residents are told how much they would have to pay out of pocket to make the project happen.

Since these projects are often expensive — especially in areas like the Adkinses’ hollow, where rough terrain means more difficult work– breaking it down for individuals doesn’t breed much hope.

“We don’t have that [money]. We just don’t,” Allen Adkins said. “Not a lot of folks around here do.”

Just a tenth of a mile down from his home a fire hydrant sits on his neighbor’s property. He said that’s where the public water service stops.

“Why would they give the man down the road here water and not give us water? Why do we have to pay that much money?” Adkins asked, sitting at his kitchen table and shaking his head in frustration. “How is he different than us?”

Many areas unconnected to water services are similar to the Adkinses property: small communities or hollows with a handful of people, buried behind mountains and hard to access.

It’s a challenge, too, to convince current customers to pay more to cover the costs of extending services to those areas.

“What we are seeing is an unwillingness by existing customers of a system to pay to extend service to new areas,” Swann said. “The fact of the matter is all the easy stuff has already been served. What’s left is way out, sparsely populated. There’s a reason no one has laid pipes there before.”

So, without public water, Allen Adkins continues to count.

Those in his home — a revolving door of children, grandchildren, cousins and other relatives — coordinate schedules for laundry, showers, doing the dishes and cooking.

His son and grandkids help him haul buckets of water into their home, but as he ages, it becomes more difficult. Power outages — which are impossible to predict and in some cases last days — knocks out the pump at his well, leaving the well unusable. He keeps barrels full of reserve water on hand, but he never knows if it’s enough.

Adkins doesn’t hold a lot of hope that he will ever see public water pipes run on his property.

He remembers being a boy, helping his mother fish water out of an old chain well.

“We should be past this by now, we should have more. It’s 2018,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking down at his kitchen table. “My father, when he was still alive, he didn’t think he’d ever see a blacktop road running through here, and he did, he was able to, just a few years before he passed.

“I wonder if that will be the same for me. If maybe my grandkids will be able to enjoy [clean water]. I wish I could tell you, I just don’t know, though. I don’t feel too confident.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at kentucky.comwvgazettemail.comwvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.

Stirring the Waters

‘Who’s Going to Pay for It?’: No Easy Answers to Resolve Water Issues

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The Keystone Water Department is operated out of the town's former city hall. Residents in Keystone have been living under a boil-water advisory since 2012 because the facility doesn't have a qualified operator. Photo: F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

Local officials in McDowell County called a meeting in the town of Bradshaw to talk about broadband internet in West Virginia’s poorest county. But the first question from a resident focused on something more basic.

“Eleven years ago someone knocked on my door and promised me I could get city water. I still don’t have any city water, and I’ve never heard from them since — not once,” Sandra Roberts said. “Will you be like that? When is the next time we’re going to see you all out this way?”

The speakers assured Roberts they would not do that, and that this time, a promise would be fulfilled.

In McDowell County, it’s nearly impossible to attend a community gathering — no matter the focus — without water being part of the conversation.

“We hear it all the time, everywhere,” said Cecil Patterson, a McDowell County commissioner. “It’s a big concern for folks around here, [and] for us, too.”

When it comes to water, Roberts remains skeptical of any commitments handed down to her and her neighbors. She hasn’t touched the water coming out of the faucets in her Lex home in years. Instead, she drives about 40 minutes to Iaeger each week to fill up water jugs for her family from a mountain spring.

“We’re tired of having to wait for things, of being that afterthought and talked about when it’s convenient, but left behind when it’s not,” Roberts said.

Made of copper, steel, plastic and terra cotta, hundreds of miles of pipes weave underneath West Virginia, forming more than 500 water and sewage systems that serve a majority of the state’s residents.

Not all, though.

Not Roberts, or thousands of others who live in small hollows and communities nestled in nooks throughout the state’s natural mountainous terrain.

“What we have already done — that’s the easy stuff,” said Wayne Morgan, director of the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a clearinghouse responsible for approving and overseeing infrastructure projects in the state. “All that’s left is the harder stuff — difficult extensions that cost more money, and all of that is on top of the money needed to take care of what is already there.”

According to the council, 62 percent of structures in the state are connected to a water system, and just 46 percent to a sewage system. Lex is one of those communities where many residents go without, and the council estimates that $17 billion — more than three times the state’s entire 2018 budget — would be needed to connect the hollow and the hundreds of others like it throughout the state to centralized utility services.

While a majority of that estimate is for extending lines for new connections — $2.3 billion for water and $10.7 billion for sewage — $4 billion is needed for rehabilitation work to ensure the current infrastructure still works.

As with the rest of the country, much of West Virginia’s water piping was laid in the early 20th century. Most has a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, a timeframe that has already expired in some places and is quickly approaching in others, said Amy Swann, director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association.

In many areas, this infrastructure was developed by coal companies operating company towns, and was handed off when coal production slowed and companies left. Residents were often ill equipped to operate the systems — the most qualified workers usually left with the companies — and early mismanagement and lack of necessary maintenance set many systems up for premature failure, with pipes giving way before their estimated timemark.

Mavis Brewster, director of the McDowell County Public Service District, said that’s the case for nearly every community sitting along U.S. 52, the rural county’s main route.

“Coal companies kept everything moving, some better than others, but when they left, the problems were mostly the same,” Brewster said. “Now we don’t know where a lot of these systems run exactly — original plans were lost — and we have less resources on hand to deal with more.”

The McDowell County PSD has made a practice of acquiring small systems in the region when they are unable to effectively serve their customers. Now operating 16 separate systems in the county, soon to be more, Brewster is an advocate for consolidating utility systems.

“Regional systems are the way to go. Sometimes, especially [in Southern West Virginia] geography can make them unfeasible, but when they are, it’s great,” Brewster said.

But some communities are too far apart to regionalize, and residents have other concerns.

After a project to improve water infrastructure in the towns of Northfork and Keystone, the McDowell PSD will take over service for the two towns. Brewster said this almost certainly will mean improvements for customers of those systems, both off which are considered historically noncompliant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Northfork residents approved the referendum proposing the county PSD’s takeover in 2014, but Brewster said the support wasn’t always there — McDowell County PSD had offered its services to the town in the past, but couldn’t get residents’ approval.

Throughout the entire state, but especially in Southern West Virginia, people take immense pride in the things they can independently own and operate, Swann said. For many community leaders, handing over something like a water system to a larger, neighboring entity can feel like handing over a piece of their independence.

“Some of this resistance is cultural and some of it is practical, at least to them,” Swann said. “It’s kind of like a perfect storm of aging infrastructure, cultural values, ability — or inability — to pay. It’s all a big problem.”

A few miles down from Northfork is Keystone, where residents don’t have meters for their water. While the water quality is questionable — the town has been operating under a boil-water advisory since 2012 — residents pay about $25 a month no matter their how much they use. But if they don’t pay, there’s no valve that can be turned to shut off the water.

Essentially, it’s free, Brewster said, and when the PSD takes over, residents know that’s going to change.

“They know, that if they get a new water system, they’re going to get metered water,” Swann said. “That’s part of the deal. They’re not going to walk by and not get metered water — it’s not going to happen.”

Vondalere Scott, the town recorder and former mayor of Keystone, worries that that the county’s takeover of the water system will mean less revenue for the town, which is already buried in debt.

The reality, though, is income from water bills does not compare to expenses accrued by the system, Brewster said. Regionalization, while perhaps difficult in the short term (correcting inadequate systems can be more expensive than forming entirely new ones, according to Brewster), is a crucial strategy for long term viability.

“Everyone’s costs go down — instead of having 100 customers on a small system trying to cover millions of dollars [for projects], you have thousands. There is less reporting and testing since you can consolidate, you buy chemicals in bulk and you don’t need as many operators. The fewer systems you have, the better.”

West Virginia is one of two states to lose population over the past decade, and much of that loss was centered in Southern West Virginia, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts. Since 2007, more than 18,000 residents have left the state.

That makes it even more important for smaller systems to band together, regionalization advocates like Brewster argue.

Geographically, water and sewage connectivity has grown in the last 10 years, but out of the 44 public water systems operating in Southern West Virginia’s coalfield counties — Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming — just 13 reported serving more customers in 2017 than in 2007. For the 22 sewage systems in the same counties, just four saw an increase.

But more people connected through the same sets of pipes, intake systems, treatment plants and reserve tanks means more people at risk if something goes wrong.

In 2014, thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into the Elk River just upriver from the main Charleston intake center for West Virginia-American Water, a private company that has offered water services in the state for more than 100 years.

The spill left 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties connected to WVAW without potable water. A relatively small number of people in the same region, though, were connected to small, community water systems and didn’t have any problems..

In the 1990s, leaders at West Virginia-American Water saw the regionalization trend on the horizon. The company began using public-private partnerships to soak up smaller systems as they fell behind.

Because it’s so large, West Virginia-American is able to disperse costs for projects among more of their customers, so rate increases don’t hurt as much, said Dan Bickerton, the company’s director of business development.

“If you have less customers and more costs, your rates are going to continue to go higher and higher and higher, or your system is going to continue to deteriorate, and you don’t want those things to happen,” Bickerton said.

Jackie Roberts, director of the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division, agrees that regionalization can help correct small, failing water systems. But she cites West Virginia-American’s practice of taking over systems in central West Virginia as a major reason for the company’s rate increases.

“The question is who is going to pay for it? If the customers in those local and desperate places can’t pay to begin with, who is going to?” Roberts said. “Acquisitions, if you do them, they’re going to cost money. They’re going to come with rate increases for existing customers.”

Other than revenue from customers — which solely cover operating expenses for the utilities — community systems often rely on local governments to pay for rehabilitation work and line extensions.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors, localities bear the brunt of responsibility for funding water projects — 98 percent of financing for water and sewage infrastructure throughout the nation is done by local governments. County commissions and town councils may not raise the money, but they apply for and get funds from grant programs, nonprofits and other agencies.

Grants are the most sought-after funding source for water projects, according to Marie Prezioso, director of the state Water Development Authority, the funding arm of the IJDC. There are fewer grants in recent years, though, a struggle that is also felt at the Rural Water Association as it tries to help small community water systems.

“There are some people who say we’ll just rebuild the systems and give them all grant money,” Swann said. “There just isn’t that much grant money.”

As grant funding has shrunk, water and sewage systems have started using more low-interest loans to fund their projects. Loans are funded through the Drinking Water Treatment State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, two federal-state partnerships managed by the WDA.

The federal government designates money to these funds annually, but most of the spending power comes from interest and payments on loans granted to systems for projects in past years.

Low-interest loans can still bury small water systems in debt. Projects can take years to complete; that’s years before new customers can be added and provide a system with more revenue to pay off debt or pay for other maintenance, Brewster said.

The state hasn’t provided as much funding for such projects in recent years, according to Prezioso. The West Virginia Lottery, one of the largest sources of infrastructure funding, granted $46 million in 2014, but just $26 million in 2015. Those numbers are rising again, but the lean years had a real effect, she said.

In all, 144 proposed sewage and water projects were approved by the IJDC for construction in West Virginia, at a total of nearly $700 million. By Dec. 31, 2017, only $8.5 million — just over 1 percent of necessary funds — were secured for the projects.

If these projects were completed, they would connect 6,170 more customers — 3,063 water ratepayers and 3,107 wastewater ratepayers — to a centralized service. They could also improve service for upwards of 50,000 customers in the state.

While more secure and available funding could certainly improve how water and sewer utilities operate now, Swann is part of a minority that does not think throwing money at the issue can solve it. There will always be more need than available funds, she believes, and even if all pipes could be replaced today, utilities still need a way to maintain them, or else they’ll find themselves in the same position a few years down the road.

With limited and ever-shrinking external funding pools, systems are often left with little choice but to raise rates, a sometimes daunting process that can be made even more challenging by local political interests and policies at the West Virginia Public Service Commission, Swann said.

When a system wants to propose a rate hike, it must hire attorneys and accountants to audit its finances and prepare a report for the PSC. Brewster said McDowell County PSD pays an average of $10,000 each time it requests a rate increase.

“When you apply for [a rate increase], it’s not because you want to, it’s because you have to,” Brewster said. “It’s because you need more money to keep functioning, and having to pay all that to even get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ takes a toll.”

While the PSC does have systems to help small systems afford these costs, it’s just more red tape in an already grueling process, Brewster said.

Most times, the PSC will suggest a lower rate than proposed in an attempt to lessen the burden for customers. A study commissioned in 2014 by the West Virginia arm of the RWA and other water-focused organizations in the state analyzed how West Virginia regulates its utilities compared to other states. It found that the PSC rejects the fully requested amounts for rate increases “by a magnitude greater than” other, comparable states.

Swann wants to see the state reform the way it handles rates for water and sewage.

The PSC has final say on any rate increase for utilities, in an attempt to keep costs low while bringing in enough money to cover loan debt and keep systems up and running. The current system often means utilities can’t build up enough money to do those things, said Swann, who spent 25 years working as the director of the PSC’s public service district division before joining the RWA in 2013

The 50 State Study found that only seven other states in the nation regulate water or sewage utilities relatively as strongly as West Virginia does.

In the past, the RWA lobbied to update state code and deregulate parts of the PSC to make it easier for systems to build up capital and access other assistance they need.

For Jackie Roberts at the PSC, proposals to decrease oversight for systems can be concerning. While she understands the need for more revenue, she worries about the risks that could come to consumers if systems aren’t watched.

“We need to make sure what the utilities are doing is reasonable and necessary and in the ordinary course of business — that their expenses are appropriate,” Roberts said. “We look at every aspect of their operations and go from there.”

In 2015 a bill passed, allowing larger systems that operate as political subdivisions — those with more than 4,500 customers and $3 million in annual revenue — to not be regulated by the PSC for rate increases (within reason) or construction project proposals.

“We got that little chink away,” Swann said. “It’s worked exactly the way we said it’s going to.”

Last legislative session, a bill that proposed to do similar for smaller systems died in committee, much to the frustration of Swann, since this one would have assisted the community systems she feels need help the most.

Roberts expects to see other, related legislation floating around this upcoming session. She worries that, if passed, having less regulations through the PSC could mean more risk for consumers.

“Whenever you’re providing an essential service like water, you need to make sure it’s done correctly. We’re all familiar with intentional misdeeds — like in Flint — or even with chemical spills — like here in Kanawha Valley. This all needs to be done correctly, or there are serious risks,” Roberts said. “Someone might get along without heat or electricity for a few days, but water is essential. You’re not lasting long without it.”

While agencies and organizations may hold differing views on what should be priority for handling how water and sewer systems operate, most agree on two things: changes need to be made, and those changes will only be successful with strong, unwavering community support at the local level.

This can be difficult, as residents in many areas — like Sandra Roberts in Lex — have grown apathetic after feeling as though they’ve been written off for years.

“We’re tired of watching people make promises then put their money somewhere else when it really matters,” Roberts said. “Show us something, show us you’re serious about us. We can only take being knocked back so many times, and dammit, I think we’re just about there.”

The more residents that can rally for ownership or changes in a water system, the more influence they have — in 1980, that’s how McDowell County PSD was formed: women in the region, specifically in Caretta and Coalwood, would not step down from demanding access to clean, reliable water in their homes. So the PSD was formed by the county, and handed over to the woman who started the movement.

“These problems didn’t come over night and they aren’t going to be solved overnight,” Swann said. “I think if you have that dedicated group at the local level, that everyone should try to be supporting them in what they’re trying to do … Water is going to be around forever and these struggles are going to continue, to get worse, to grow, if we don’t.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at kentucky.comwvgazettemail.comwvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.

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Stirring the Waters

In Southern W.Va., Days Without Water Are a Way Of Life

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Chris Coleman, of Gary, West Virginia, holds a water filter he just removed rom his family's water system. The reddish-brown, muddy water is what flows into their pipes before it hits the filter, he said. Photo: F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

Each morning Tina Coleman turns her faucet, she waits to see what color the water will be when, or if, it flows out.

Some days it’s blue or green — earthy tones that could be comforting in a river bed surrounded by trees, instead of filling the porcelain tub she uses to bathe her 9-month-old grandson. Other days, the water looks like different shades of rust: deep, coppery reds and browns. Sometimes it’s white and cloudy, as if a powder, thoroughly stirred, is about to dissolve.

“You never know what color it’s going to be when it comes out. It’s like a kaleidoscope,” said Cierra Coleman, Tina Coleman’s 18-year-old daughter, and mother to 9-month-old Keaton.

Even on good days, when the water flows mostly clear, it can leave anything it touches gray.

“It turns our nails gray, our laundry gray — look at this,” Cierra held out her arm to show the noticeably off-white tinge of her Mount View High School sweatshirt. “We don’t even buy anything white anymore. What’s the point?

“I can’t imagine that’s good for us to be drinking, either.”

Tina Coleman and her husband, Chris Coleman, grew up in McDowell County. After spending several years in different states raising their family, she brought them back in 2010, wanting to show her children the corner of Appalachia where she was raised.

When the Colemans made the decision to move back, they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

McDowell is one of the most impoverished counties in the nation, and more people per capita leave it each year than any other West Virginia county, according to census data. Fewer than 18,500 people live their now, compared with more than 95,000 people In the 1950s.

Once the largest coal-producing county in the United States, 38 percent of McDowell residents now live below the poverty line — more than double the national rate. The county ranks among the counties with the most people hospitalized from opioid overdoses nationwide.

Tina Coleman knew all that. But she wasn’t prepared for seven years of unreliable water service, or what she calls indifference from community leaders about the problem.

Coleman lives in Gary, a city off the Tug Fork River with fewer than 1,000 people. But frustrations with city water and sewage service, and worries about how that affects her loved ones, have pushed her to look for another place to call home.

“We all live with it, but no one ever says anything. [The city] does as they please, and it seems other people, it’s almost like they’re intimidated to say anything,” Coleman said. “We’re at their mercy and they’ve given us no other choice.

“If you can’t provide us our basic needs — that’s what water is to us — why would I live here?” she asked.

The Colemans spend most of their time at Tina’s Flowers and Gifts, a boutique store Tina Coleman opened off U.S. 52 in Welch in 2011.

There, the water flows clear, bills are affordable and Tina Coleman said there is rarely an issue. That’s what she’s looking for: relief from the $200 she spends monthly on bottled water and filters for her faucets, which are often a deep rust color when she changes them every two weeks.

That’s on top of the $150 she spends on her water and sewage bill each month — “that much money for water we can’t drink.”

•••

Before it was a city, the Gary area was a web of small towns and hollows surrounded by more than a dozen coal mines, all owned and operated by U.S. Steel Corporation.

Up until 1970, the company owned all the land and property within the region. The Charleston Gazette reported that the company ran the water plant, picked up garbage and provided electricity. It performed maintenance on the system, taking care of problems as they arose.

Soon though, as coal production slowed in the region, U.S. Steel began to pull its resources from the city it created.

In September 1970, U.S. Steel moved to incorporate five coal camps — Gary, Wilcoe, Thorpe, Elbert and Filbert — into one, the city of Gary, named for a founder of the company. Coal mining families, who were renting homes at bargain prices, were offered a chance to buy them. The company donated its water plant to the city, all in an effort to cut tax and maintenance burdens.

Without company support, there was no one left to maintain utility systems — trained engineers were some of the first to leave when coal mines began shutting down. As U.S. Steel shrunk its operations and paid less in taxes, the city got less money to pay its bills. Perhaps most importantly, as coal mining jobs left, no other labor sector rose to take its place, leaving many residents jobless in what was once the fifth-largest coal producing city in the state.

Coleman and her neighbors rely on a water system that, for the most part, relies on the same pipes donated to the city nearly 50 years ago, with few upgrades since then.

It’s not just Gary, though. Residents throughout Southern West Virginia’s coalfields, in different towns that relied on different companies, will swear the same story applies to them.

Corporate reliance, according to residents and others familiar with the area’s water infrastructure history, cursed West Virginia’s industrial waterways.

“These communities were developed to house workers to mine coal. [Coal operators] were not interested in, for the most part, planning,” said Amy Swann, director of the West Virginia arm of the National Rural Water Association. “They were interested in, ‘How can I put this town up in the cheapest way possible and move on?’ and that’s what they did.

“Any of the regulations or planning factors we consider today were not around then, and now we’re dealing with what that means.”

Today, an estimated $17 billion is needed to correct water infrastructure challenges for all of West Virginia, per the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a state agency that serves as a clearinghouse for funding on infrastructure projects. That figure is almost four times the state’s entire budget for 2018.

Swann, though, is not confident more money will fix issues in McDowell County or similar areas.

“There have been millions upon millions of dollars put into the construction to run water lines in McDowell County. I think if people knew how many millions, they’d [be shocked],” Swann said. “We’ve put money in there, a lot of it, and still people cannot rely on their service.”

•••

In West Virginia, boil-water notices are posted for any system with issues that could affect the quality of the drinking water: potential chemical contaminations, inadequate disinfection, line breaks that can lead to sediment in the pipes (and to discolored water, like for Coleman in Gary). Those notices warn residents of the potential danger and urge them to boil water before using it, or to avoid it until further notice.

From 2013 to 2018, more than 7,000 boil-water notices were posted for water systems in the state, according to a log kept by the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health.

Walt Ivey, director of the bureau’s Office of Environmental Health Services, said it’s important to note that not all those advisories mean water coming through a faucet is dangerous.

“We want to let residents know there is an issue, and to be aware of it,” Ivey said, “but we really can’t say one way or the other the quality of the water [until it is tested].”

Over the last five years, Gary residents have been told to boil their water before using it for a total of about 50 days.

But for residents in some surrounding areas, places where Tina Coleman might considering moving, 50 days in five years is next to nothing.

In O’Toole, a small community about 15 miles from Gary, residents served by the town’s water system have been under a continued boil-water notice since May of 2002 — more than 16 years.

In Keystone, another small town about 15 miles northeast of Gary, a boil-water advisory has been in effect since 2012.

At least nine community water systems in West Virginia have been under boil-water advisories for longer than five years, according to the state, and all operate in Southern West Virginia: four in Wyoming County, two in Mercer County, two in McDowell County and one in Fayette County.

The reason for the boil-water advisories — which are reissued every three months when necessary — are consistently listed as a failure to monitor the drinking water, inadequate disinfection of the drinking water and lack of a proper system operator.

Water systems throughout the nation face similar problems.

The National Rural Water Association says a wave of the country’s water operators, many baby boomers, are expected to retire in coming years. Swann said it’s already happening in West Virginia — and recruiting to fill those positions isn’t easy.

“It’s not a job people are thinking about a lot of the time, and it’s not the most enticing thing,” said Donald Morgan, a Wyoming County resident who has operated water systems in West Virginia and Kentucky for more than 20 years. “It’s hard work — fulfilling at times, but hard — and I’m not sure you ever get the recognition you should.”

Water system operators require different trainings and certifications, depending on the size of the area they serve. Hours are long, trainings can be grueling, pay is not competitive to other, perhaps simpler, jobs — like flaggers for construction companies, Morgan said — and sometimes, for operators, it feels like the weight of the world rests on their shoulders.

Early in his career, Morgan worked a nearly 48-hour shift at a facility because someone else couldn’t come in.

“That’s what you do — the water doesn’t stop running, so you can’t either … You work long hours, and you have to be on top of it at all times — really, you’re responsible for people’s health, their safety, too,” Morgan said.

“If something goes wrong, the people don’t blame the pipes, or the guy 10 years ago who decided not to replace a line or something, they blame you,” he said. “God forbid something really bad would happen — you do your best, but they will still probably blame you.”

In Southern West Virginia, with dwindling population, fewer people are capable or willing to take on the job, or even aware of these job opportunities. Less money is available to hire more employees, or to upgrade and maintain systems, which could lighten burdens for operators.

Without qualified operators to monitor or disinfect systems, health officials like Ivey don’t have the information they need when it comes to the quality of the water.

“We can’t tell — especially in those situations, where [boil-water advisories] have been in effect for so long, we can’t be sure,” Ivey said. “We don’t know how clean the water is. If you don’t have an operator and aren’t doing the testing, we really don’t know.”

West Virginia’s Bureau for Public Health relies on information from its five regional offices to issue or reissue boil-water notices.

Those notices show the agency knows about systems that face long-term struggles, but Ivey said the bureau’s hands are tied when it comes to offering support like more testing, which could alleviate residents’ concerns, or at least clarify the problems.

Sanitary surveys, performed by the state intermittently, help water systems identify areas where they need help. But not much is done past identifying, Ivey said.

“Generally, it is an issue of having enough revenue,” he said.

Revenue that could help them become compliant were it spent on necessary improvements currently hindering that.

A lack of money and people — the same issues that hold local water systems back — also impede the state agency that could, under different circumstances, help them.

“We just don’t have the funds to do the testing, or to do site visits as frequently as, I think, we wish we could,” Ivey said. “When we talk about resources, we’re not just talking about pipes and money, we’re talking about money to pay the people, too. We only have so many people.”

Seven of the nine Southern West Virginia water systems under boil-water advisories for more than five years — all except for Green Camp PSD, which serves 44 residents in Brenton, Wyoming County — are considered serious violators for drinking water standards by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. All have had violations for the last 12 quarters on record.

Coal Mountain Water — based in Wyoming County, with 118 customers — has racked up more violation points (574) and more outstanding violation points (544) with the EPA than any other West Virginia community water system over the last five years. According to records filed with the EPA, state inspectors performed an informal inspection on the system in October 2017. Before that, inspectors did a sanitary survey in 2013, and listed significant deficiencies in almost every category.

The 10 water systems with the most formal enforcement actions for drinking water violations are in Southern West Virginia. Seven of those also have long-term boil-water advisories.

Filings with the EPA and the PSC do not indicate that those systems receive any additional resources or water testing to quell customer worries, or that any efforts are made to correct violations or enforce orders.

“That’s what we need, is follow-through,” Morgan said. “We all say all these rules exist and all these policies are out there, but who is enforcing them? Everyone says it’s someone else’s problem, and charging [a utility] money isn’t going to help — they don’t have any. We need to rethink the way we do all of this, or it’s just going to get worse.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at kentucky.comwvgazettemail.comwvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.

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Stirring the Waters

‘Muddy, Nasty Water’: Why These Eastern Kentuckians Are Afraid To Drink From Their Taps

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Harlan, Kentucky, on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

David Wilburn stood in the kitchen of his Harlan County home and filled a gallon jug from the faucet and held it up to the light.

“It might be clear right now, but that’s just until they have another leak,” Wilburn said as he looked for any discoloration or sediments floating to the bottom.

When service lines break near his home, Wilburn said the tap water can be muddy for days at a time. Those periods have left him questioning the quality of his water, which he doesn’t even like to use for bathing.

“It’s constantly under a boil water advisory,” Wilburn said.

Like many people in Appalachian Kentucky, Wilburn doesn’t drink the water that comes out the tap. Instead, he buys bottled water to cook, drink and make coffee.

Skepticism and fear cause many families here — one of the poorest parts of the country — to spend as much as $50 a month on bottled drinking water. That’s on top of monthly water bills that many say are already too high.

Years of frequent boil water advisories and sometimes long stints of dirty water have gutted people’s trust in their tap water. Some worry about the health of their children. Others say the water makes them feel itchy and gives them rashes.

Wilburn won’t even use tap water to wash off vegetables or leafy greens before he makes salads.

“You could go house to house here and everybody would tell you about this water, about the quality and how it goes off,” he said. “When they start having that trouble, it’s brown for a long time.”

“It tears me all to pieces,” he said.

Wilburn is a customer of Cawood Water District, which serves about 1,600 houses and businesses in Harlan County. Since January 2016, Cawood Water District has issued 52 boil water advisories, mostly because of line breaks.

The district, like many others in the region, has grappled with high rates of water loss from leaking service lines, which allow groundwater and sediment to enter the pipes.

In nearby Pike County, Mountain Water District issued about 190 boil water advisories during the same time period, though that district serves a much larger area. Floyd County’s Southern Water and Sewer District issued about 30 advisories during that time.

The resulting dirty water can cause financial pains, as well. Cawood Water District customer Linda Allen said her last water heater worked only one year and eight months before it broke.

According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Energy, water heaters should last between eight and 20 years. Poor water quality is the primary cause of water heaters not reaching their potential lifespan, according to the report.

“When it’s real nasty, we’ve gotten to where we don’t run no hot water,” Linda Allen said. “It’ll get nasty in there.”

Before she throws her white T-shirts and sheets in the washing machine, Allen opens the lid of her toilet and peers in. The water is usually clear, but occasionally she finds water “as brown as any muddy river you’ve ever seen.” Other times, a layer of dirty sediment rests on the bottom.

“You can’t wash your clothes in muddy, nasty water,” Allen said. “I’ve heard people talking — they’ve ruined their sheets and everything, — so I try to keep a watch on mine in the commode and not do no washing or nothing when it’s nasty — and I call it nasty cause it’s nasty.”

‘Serious violators’

Kentucky water districts are beholden to the federal Safe Water Drinking Act. The law sets quality standards and allows the Kentucky Division of Water to monitor districts throughout the state.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many districts in Eastern Kentucky are listed as in violation or “serious violators” of the law.

Districts can breach the Safe Water Drinking Act in a number of ways, including failing to alert residents of line breaks and exceeding safe levels for “disinfection byproducts” — chemicals created during the treatment process when chlorine interacts with organic matter, such as raw sewage.

John Sullivan, chief engineer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said drinking water with levels of disinfection byproducts that exceed federal standards are unlikely to hurt most people, but that some more sensitive parts of the population — infants, the elderly and pregnant women, for example — could be at risk.

“We want to meet or exceed all the regulations that are out there, because the public health community has determined that if you’re over these things, somebody could be hurt,” Sullivan said. “If you’re over the number of (disinfection byproducts), then you’ve got to bring that down.”

Since January 2016, water samples collected from the Martin County Water District have exceeded Safe Water Drinking Act limits for disinfection byproducts at least 12 times, according to data provided by the Kentucky Division of Water. The district is currently in compliance with those regulations, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

Mountain Water District in Pike County has been a “serious violator” for six of the last 12 quarters, including the three most recent quarters, mostly for exceeding disinfection byproducts limits. Southern Water and Sewer District in Floyd County also has been a “serious violator” for six of the last 12 quarters.

Cawood Water District has been in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act every quarter for the last three years for violating public notice regulations, but not for water quality, according to EPA records. Public notice rules require districts to “immediately alert consumers if there is a serious problem with their drinking water that may pose a risk to public health,” according to the EPA.

Jenkins Water System in Letcher County also has been in violation or a “serious violator” for each of the last 12 quarters, but mostly for public notice regulations.

Safe Water Drinking Act records give some indication of a district’s water quality, but the law’s requirements for testing and its enforcement provisions are weak, said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center who has worked on water system issues in Eastern Kentucky.

Water can meet quality standards set by the Safe Water Drinking Act when it leaves the plant, but the act provides “very little recourse for the problems that are occurring as the water gets into the lines,” Cromer said.

‘It’s a basic human right’

In many areas, dirty tap water is the result of broken service lines and irregular pressure, but some residents in Martin County also fear residual effects from a coal slurry spill in 2000, when 250 million gallons of toxic sludge poured into the Tug Fork river.

The river remains the sole source of water for the Martin County Water District, which serves about 3,500 homes and businesses in the county.

Martin County resident BarbiAnn Maynard has been complaining about water quality problems for years. Soon after the spill, she noticed new warnings on the back of her water bills. The warnings said pregnant women, infants, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems should consult a physician before drinking the water. They also warned residents of a possibly higher risk of cancer due to the water.

The water district’s infrastructure, which has fed dirty and discolored water into the homes of many residents, isn’t capable of dealing with the arsenic and toxic materials that remain in the river, she contends.

Videos posted by residents have shown the result of these problems — water that looks bright white, dark brown, and even blue.

“Water should be clear and odorless, and that’s something we don’t have here, and haven’t for a very long time,” Maynard said. “It’s a basic human right, to have clean water. We’re in the United States of America, we’re in Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. We have beauty, we have nature, we have water — it’s just the good water is not getting to the people.”

‘We don’t put out bad water’

Most water district officials say the water they produce meets federal standards and is safe to drink.

Lana Pace, finance officer for the Cawood Water District, said she thinks people’s concerns about quality are legitimate, but “are they correct? No.”

“We don’t put out bad water,” Pace said.

She said the district pays thousands of dollars every month to have its water tested by multiple independent laboratories, but a lack of trust in water quality remains common throughout Harlan County and the rest of Eastern Kentucky.

That distrust, she said, is largely fueled by the frequency of boil water advisories, but it’s compounded by other environmental factors, such as surface coal mining and the use of straight pipes — sewage lines that dump raw waste directly into streams or the ground.

“People get aggravated with us when we put on the boil water (advisories), but you know, that’s a precaution,” she said. “I do know that I trust the water. I always did. I always used it.”

Though she trusts the water, Pace said water districts throughout the region face major infrastructure issues that lead to outages, and those outages can impact people’s health and way of life.

She thinks local, state and federal politicians aren’t doing enough to address the crisis that many water districts face in this part of the state: declining populations coupled with an ever-mounting list of maintenance issues means water district have less money to do more work.

That can lead to major problems, Pace said.

“We shouldn’t have to wonder when we turn the faucet on, is there gonna be water,” she said. “It should be a priority. I know you worry about jobs and you worry about this, and I do too, but I worry about people’s health.”

“Let’s stir the politicians up,” she said. “Be calling your judges, be calling your senators, your representatives, your governors.”

Wilburn, the Cawood customer, said he wishes public money that is spent on new government buildings and tourist attractions would instead be used to repair the region’s failing web of water lines, or to build new water holding tanks, or to dig a reservoir as a backup water source during long outages.

“If they can put these skateboard parks up and all that, they need to put up something that’s essential,” Wilburn said. “They’re doing stuff to help them, but not us.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at kentucky.comwvgazettemail.comwvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.

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