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.com, wvgazettemail.com, wvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.