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Ohio River Compact Considers Vote to Eliminate its Pollution Standards

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The Ohio River is a source of drinking water for more than 5 million people. Photo: Kara Lofton/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A multi-state commission charged with ensuring water quality in the Ohio River will consider whether to eliminate its pollution control standards at its meeting on February 14. Thousands of people have expressed opposition during a public comment period, while others argue that the regulations are redundant and have no teeth.

The current debate started brewing five years ago, when Dayton Power and Light along with a handful of energy companies challenged the state of Ohio. They said state permits couldn’t use a standard set by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, that limits the temperature of the companies’ waste discharges into the Ohio River. The companies pointed out that the state had never officially adopted the ORSANCO standards in Ohio law. And the companies won. 

“It was a shock,” said ORSANCO commissioner Tom FitzGerald. He and others hadn’t realized that some states weren’t adopting the agreed-upon standards.

What is ORSANCO?

Image courtesy of ORSANCO.

ORSANCO is a compact between the eight Ohio River states that dates back to 1948, before the federal Clean Water Act and before states had their own water quality standards.

Each of the eight states has two or three commissioners. Fitzgerald, who is an environmental lobbyist in Kentucky, is considered a federal commissioner on the ORSANCO board. 

“I’m one of three federal commissioners that were appointed by President Obama,” he says. “I guess I’m a holdover.” 

Through the decades, the water quality experts at ORSANCO have created rules and standards for all kinds of discharges into the river, like limits on sewage and pollutants such as benzene and mercury to protect aquatic life and human health. 

Some States Adopted ORSANCO Standards, Others Didn’t

The 2014 Dayton Power and Light case brought to light an issue of disparity among states in the compact. Some, like Pennsylvania and Indiana, have adopted the ORSANCO standards, while others, like Ohio and Illinois, have not.  

“Your technical people and your commissioners have been approving these standards for decades. Are you now telling me they’re suitable and appropriate for the river, but you’re not using them?” FitzGerald asks.

Fitzgerald says this disparity impacts water quality and creates an unfair playing field for industries in the different river states. For instance, states that have adopted ORSANCO regulations, like Pennsylvania, limit some mercury discharges into the Ohio River, while Illinois does not.

Toby Frevert, ORSANCO commissioner from Illinois, chairs its Pollution Control Standards Committee. He spent his career as manager of water pollution control at the Illinois EPA, and explains that his state has a Pollution Control Board that decides state regulations. ORSANCO has no legal authority.  

“They don’t have the luxury of delegating that off to an interstate commission or anybody else,” Frevert says of the Illinois Pollution Control Board. “They have to adopt the regulations that the administrative agency is bound to operate by.”

States are required to work with the US EPA to meet federal water quality standards, so Frevert doesn’t think ORSANCO is needed as a pollution regulator any longer. 

“In my opinion, ORSANCO’s a great organization – I love it,” he says. “But it’s really not designed or staffed to handle regulations in the modern era the way US EPA and the state environmental agencies are.” 

“Not the Time to Signal a Retreat”

But one analysis by ORSANCO found 188 instances where it regulates pollution, and the U.S. EPA does not, and others where federal regulations are less stringent. 

Tom FitzGerald, the federal ORSANCO commissioner in Kentucky, looks at the current rollback of federal environmental regulations. 

“Even the Clean Water Act itself is in turmoil,” he says. 

Fitzgerald wants ORSANCO protections to stay in place. 

“This is not the time to signal a retreat from the maintenance of standards intended to protect the health of the public and the use of river,” he says.

Since last year, ORSANCO has been considering eliminating its pollution control standards. The agency received well over 5000 public comments on its proposal, most of them opposed to eliminating the standards. 

The commissioners are scheduled to vote at their February 14 meeting, but many expect it will be delayed as they consider revisions.

This story was originally published by The Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front is produced in Pittsburgh and reports on the environment. More at alleghenyfront.org.

Water

Fish Species in Ohio River Has Substantially Increased since ’60s, Study Finds

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The variety of fish species in the Ohio River has substantially increased since the 1960s, according to a new study.

A team of researchers from Ball State University and Virginia Tech examined almost 60 years of fish surveys collected by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO.

The analysis, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, examined ORSANCO-collected data from 1957-2014, as well as information on how land use near the river has changed over that time. Researchers found the number of species in the river varied from 31 to 90 each year, and increased over the decades studied.

Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the data showed more fish species variety in the Ohio River, said Ball State Biology Professor Mark Pyron, lead author of the study.

“I think that the overall positive attribute now is we know that the Clean Water Act had a really positive impact on the fishes in the river,” he said. “Maintaining water pollution standards, and controlling input of toxins to the river, is going to have a huge impact in the future on controlling or maintaining water quality and quality of life.”

He added this trend is observed at most rivers in the U.S. where long-term datasets on fish species or river quality exist.

While generally the variety of fish species in the Ohio River trended upward over time, Pyron also said the data showed the trend was not observed across all speices. For example, benthic intervertabors or insect-eating fish in the Wabash River, which runs through Ohio and Indiana, have increased according to similar data Pyron analyzed.

They was not observed in the Ohio, he said. In fact, they slightly declined.

The study also examined land use changes surrounding the Ohio River over the last 60 years. In general, the researchers found agriculture near the river has decreased, forested land increased and some dams have been modified — changes that have likely positively impacted fishes in the river, Pyron said.

He noted the study used high-level data and so the findings were largely correlations. Pyron said more research is needed to tease out what is impacting specific species across the river’s 981 mile stretch. Next, he hopes to examine changes upstream and downstream and changes in body size of fish species.

Jason DeBoer, an ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey who studies large river fisheries, said in an email that the findings were interesting and largely mirrored those from other rivers in the Midwest, although few have seen a decrease in agriculture near their banks like the Ohio River has.

However, DeBoer, who was not involved in the study, said the significance of the findings — a threefold increase in fish species as water pollution decreased and water quality improved — should not be understated.

“Importantly, the ‘splash’ of findings like these sends ripples far beyond river scientists in the Ohio River basin,” he said. He noted they should be important to politicians and state agencies that pass and implement water quality laws as well as to industries and residents that share resources from the Ohio River.

“These findings are important to other river scientists around the country or the globe, who may not have a 60-year data set like this, but who are inspired to form partnerships with sanitary districts or other water/sanitation management agencies that might,” he added.

Pyron said having access to ORSANCO’s long-term monitoring data was crucial to completing this first analysis.

“If you don’t have long-term databases like this, where people have collected the same data over a long period of time from the same location, you can’t ask questions about whether things are changing or not. You can’t ask whether there’s some impact of [the] activities that we’ve done,” he said. “The only way to ask those questions is to have those long term datasets. So, we need to maintain ORSANCO for example collecting these data into the future so we know what’s going on with our ecosystems.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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EPA To Limit PFAS Chemical Contaminants Found In Some Ohio Valley Water Systems

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Residents in Vienna, West Virginia, pick up bottled drinking water. Photo: Dave Mistich, WVPB

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it will move forward with a series of actions to regulate toxic fluorinated chemicals, including proposing drinking water limits by the end of this year. But environment and public health advocates say that timeline is unacceptably slow given the health risks and extent of contamination.

In its long-awaited “PFAS Action Plan,” EPA laid out a series of actions to address the widespread contamination of fluorinated PFAS chemicals.

Those chemicals include PFOA, or C8, which has been detected in several water systems in the Ohio Valley. The chemicals were used in a variety of products, including non-stick cookware, stain resistant clothing, and flame retardants.

Some municipalities in Ohio and West Virginia have been dealing with C-8 contamination for decades, and a court-ordered health monitoring program in the Ohio Valley linked exposure to a variety of health risks.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

“This action plan represents a pivotal moment in the history of the agency and a pivotal moment for public health environmental protection,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, speaking at a press conference in Philadelphia. “This is the most comprehensive cross-agency action plan for a chemical of concern ever undertaken by the agency.”

Among the actions outlined in the plan, EPA said it will:

  • “Propose a regulatory determination,” or take the next step to determine a Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, for PFOA and PFOS.
  • Continue enforcement actions (EPA has already done eight).
  • Clarify cleanup strategies for PFAS contamination and soon release interim groundwater cleanup recommendations for contaminated sites.
  • Expand research into the human health and ecological effects of exposure, how PFAS chemicals spread and how best to remove them from the environment.
  • Continue the process to of adding PFAS under the Superfund law.
  • Consider placing PFAS chemicals in the Toxics Release Inventory, a publicly available database containing information on chemical releases and other waste management activities.
  • Develop a plan to better communicate the risk to the public of exposure to these chemicals.

EPA’s plan was met with enthusiasm by some groups dealing with PFAS contamination. The National Ground Water Association, an Ohio-based trade group, said it was pleased with the agency’s actions to list PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law. Once listed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, states affected by the chemical contamination will be able to receive federal help holding polluters accountable.

The group also praised the agency’s decision to move forward with the regulatory process for creating drinking water standards for two PFAS chemicals frequently found in drinking water, PFOA and PFOS.

Concerns Surface

As more details emerged from the agency, however, environmental groups and some lawmakers expressed concern about the agency’s timeline for setting drinking water standards.

“It has taken the EPA nearly a year just to kick the can even further down the road,” said Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

In a statement, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia was more measured. Capito has repeatedly met with EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler on the PFAS issue and last week joined a bipartisan group of senators to urge the agency head to set a standard.

“It’s encouraging to see the EPA taking action to address something that has proven to be a real problem in a number of communities across the country—including in West Virginia,” Capito said. She added she intends to “remain actively engaged to push EPA to complete the process expeditiously and put that standard in place.”

In a call with reporters, Dave Ross, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, stressed the agency will go through the rule making process set out by the Safe Drinking Water Act. That will include using the most up-to-date science and taking public comment.

“We are going to move as quickly as we possibly can to do this,” Ross said, adding that whatever EPA proposes will likely be challenged in court. “So we will move with all deliberate speed.”

Potential Delays

But what that speed could look like is “up in the air,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Safe Drinking Water Act gives EPA the authority to create drinking water standards for chemicals. MCLs set legally enforceable limits on the amount of a substance allowed in public drinking water systems.

In order to consider setting an MCL for a chemical, the agency must prove the pollutant adversely affects public health, is widespread in public water systems, and that regulation would reduce health risk.

EPA committed to starting that process in its action plan. Reed said now the agency will begin the process of filtering through the science surrounding these chemicals, a process she fears could face interference by political appointees at the agency who have ties to the chemical industry.

C8, or PFOA, was used in many consumer products, including Teflon pan coating. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Nancy Beck, formerly worked at the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group. The White House’s nominee to head EPA’s Office of Land and Energy Management, which manages the Superfund program, is former Dow Chemical Co. counsel, Peter Wright.

“There absolutely could be a determination that PFOS and PFOA should not be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which we would argue is perhaps not in line with the best available science,” she said. “So, it’s really important to follow and see what the EPA does here and to make sure that they’re consulting with their science staff and really listening to what they’re saying on these two chemicals.”

Currently, EPA has issued a health advisory for the chemicals of 70 parts-per-trillion, but some states, including New Jersey, have adopted lower acceptable contamination levels.

During his Thursday press conference, EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler said the agency is already taking enforcement actions to cleanup contaminated drinking water if levels are higher than the health advisory recommendation.

Reed, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted if a MCL is created for PFOA and PFOS, it would trigger much more monitoring. For example, water systems would be required to provide water quality reports showing how much of these chemicals are found in their systems.

Uncertain Risks

Public health advocates also raise questions about continued exposure to potentially unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals while the agency considers creating drinking water standards.

The Environmental Working Group estimates 110 million Americans drink water with dangerous PFAS levels. EPA estimates PFAS have been found in the blood of 98 percent of Americans.

report released last year by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry(ATSDR), found PFAS chemicals can endanger human health at levels 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA says is safe.

The report, or toxicological profile, draws upon the best available research. At 852 pages, it is aimed at giving public health officials a comprehensive picture of how fluorinated chemicals may affect human health as well as highlight the different ways people may be exposed to them.

The study finds people are exposed to fluorinated chemicals in a variety of ways including through contaminated soil and water, food packaging laced with the chemicals, and some more directly by living near plants that manufactured C8.

It also finds exposure to high levels of some fluorinated chemicals may affect fertility, increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of thyroid disease.

David Andrews, senior scientist with Environmental Working Group, said there is already an overwhelming body of scientific evidence about the health impacts of PFOA and PFOS, informed largely by a study conducted in the Ohio Valley following a settlement agreement with DuPont.

he Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board, Ohio Valley ReSource

“At this point there is close to or over 100 studies of their impact on human health really indicating the potential to cause impacts to our immune system, reproduction, development as well as all the other health effects including cancer, impacts on liver, kidney,” Andrews said. “Really, it’s just an incredible range of our bodies’ functions that these chemicals can really interrupt and disrupt.”

He noted the agency’s new plan does not address the thousands of other chemicals in the PFAS class, many of which researchers know little about. In the United States, more than 600 PFAS chemicals are allowed for use. EPA said it intends to do toxicity assessments for a handful.

“It was very much unclear what if any action they would take for other chemicals in this class,” Andrews said.

Cincinnati-based attorney Rob Bilott successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont, representing more than 70,000 people affected by the company’s dumping of C8, or PFOA, in communities in the Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Marietta, Ohio, area.

Bilott said in a statement that EPA has for years shrugged off taking action and this latest plan followed the pattern. During the course of the litigation against DuPont, which lasted more than two decades, internal communications from the company were made public that showed the company knew about the chemical’s health effects since the 1950s.

In 2001, Bilott wrote to the EPA detailing what DuPont knew. Fifteen years later the agency released its health advisory.

“EPA has been promising to address the serious public health threat posed by PFAS chemical exposures for almost twenty years,” Bilott said. “Promising to conduct more studies, investigations and further work toward formal regulatory action at some point in the future, is not the same as actually taking formal regulatory action now.”

EPA’s Next Moves

The agency said it will “explore” placing PFAS chemicals on its Toxics Release Inventory. If completed, that would allow for better tracking of how they are released into the environment.  

EPA’s action plan states it intends to include PFAS in next Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR. During the last round of testing, EPA found that 1.3 percent of the public water systems monitored had concentrations of PFOA and PFOS that were greater than the agency’s health advisory limit.

When asked at what level the agency would screen for PFAS chemicals, Wheeler said career staff would make that determination.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Water In Appalachia Needs a Trillion Dollar Solution

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This is the first of a two-part series on water infrastructure in Appalachia, and possible solutions to problems at the federal and local level.

The Problem

What West Virginia faces when it comes to its streams and rivers is a historically entangled knot of cultural pride, politics and industrial interests, Angie Rosser, the executive director at West Virginia Rivers, told me in a phone interview. The organization has been dedicated to monitoring and fighting for the water quality in West Virginia for over 30 years.

The same extractive and chemical industries that bring much-needed jobs and investment into this historically under-employed and over-exploited region also often carry with them environmental risks that materialize into illness and pollution, the causes of which are not only hard to fix, but often difficult to detect, or prove liability of in court.

The United Nations recognizes access to water and sanitation as one of our basic human rights. Yet there are places in Appalachia where that right is being indirectly infringed upon as a result of these extractive industries. Areas across Appalachia facing the most chronic water-safety threats include Martin County, Kentucky and Bladen County in North Carolina, where tap water in some communities can come out discolored and fetid — if it comes out at all.

The most infamous cases include the pollution of the mid-Ohio River Valley in West Virginia and Ohio, which houses a DuPont company factory that dumped an industrial chemical called C8, used to produce Teflon, contaminating the local water supply. The chemical has been connected to heart disease, birth defects and cancer.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

In recent years, the Environmental Working Group — or EWG — a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., published a report that demonstrated a decades-long lack of enforcement on the part of the regulators and revealed that the agency’s “safety levels” might be misaligned to the real-world environmental damage they cause, meaning that in light of the latest research the levels once deemed safe may, in fact, be harmful.

April Keating, co-founder of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, named south Upshur County, Doddridge County and her own area of the city of Buckhannon and the Buckhannon River as just couple of examples in West Virginia where she’s actively involved in remedying the effects of pollution from extractive industries, during her interview with 100 Days contributing reporter Emily Pelland.

Another case study is the Elk River spill of 2014 that affected over 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. At the time of the spill people, in the affected area were told to avoid coming into contact with the contaminated water and were banned from running their taps at home. The initial state of emergency issued by then-West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin included advisory “NOT to ingest, cook, bathe, wash or boil water. Water in this coverage area (Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties) is okayed ONLY for flushing and fire protection.”

As these events unfolded, National Geographic published an article that revealed the lack of full understanding across the scientific community of the health impacts of the spill and unwillingness of the government to share the little that was known.

But even when dangerous contaminant levels are clearly identified, there is still the matter of difficulty in proving the liability to extractive industries for health problems among populations living close to their facilities.

Keating pointed to “what they (the industry) call nonpoint source pollution. You know it came from somewhere … you can’t pinpoint it exactly, and that’s what the industries are depending upon — because they know that you cannot go into court and definitively prove where it (the pollution) came from even though you live next door to that compressor station or you live next door to that separation plant.”

Water In Appalachia Needs a Trillion Dollar Solution from 100 Days on Vimeo.

The problem with water doesn’t start with pollutants and end with infrastructure. In between there is the way, in which the drinking water quality is being defined and how the results are being presented to the public — a complicated regulatory dance between protecting Appalachia’s water and protecting Appalachia’s industry. Meanwhile, flexibility in enforcement of standards can be subtle and varies by state.

To help draw attention to this complicated balance, EWG created a national Tap Water Database that makes it possible to research every zip code in America and check the water quality. In order to account for these gaps in regulatory legislation, the EWG decided to follow Public Health Goals. Originally from California, these more-strict safe drinking water standards provide safety levels for many more chemicals than the EPA’s regulations.

“The main thing is we don’t know what we don’t know, and there are thousands upon thousands of chemicals that are part of production processes that we don’t know enough about,” Rosser told me.

Keating pointed to over “750 chemicals that are used in fracking, many of which are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and the heavy metals that come out of the earth.”

But even with proper research and monitoring, the challenges to water quality and infrastructure in West Virginia and Appalachia are many. Rosser pointed to heavy pollution from the extractive industries, a severe lack of sewage infrastructure in some areas — leading to “stray pipes” dumping raw sewage into the rivers, populating them with dangerous bacteria — and the chemical industry with its own brand of pollutants.

EWG’s Alex Formuzis explained that many of the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards that follow the Safe Drinking Water Act haven’t been updated in years.

The decades-long lag in the EPA updating the list of dangerous contaminants has resulted in a paradoxical situation, where a utility company could deliver contaminated water to its clients and yet still technically be in compliance with the EPA standards.

That very fact is an important factor when trying to understand the gap between what the data shows as utilities in compliance with the federal regulations, and then the health problems found disproportionately often among populations in certain areas, particularly in places rich in extractive or chemical and heavy industries.

I reached out to the EPA to comment on that claim. The agency responded by outlining a fairly complicated process of of reviewing and introducing new contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Here’s part of it: “The EPA must publish a list of contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations every five years, EPA publishes draft CCLs (Contaminant Candidate Lists) for public comment and considers those prior to issuing final lists or regulatory determinations.”

The EPA’s official also stated that: “The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires EPA to review each national primary drinking water regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if appropriate. … EPA most recent Six-Year Review evaluated thousands of peer reviewed studies and millions of data points from drinking water treatment systems and was published in January 2017. The results of that review identified rules EPA can evaluate whether to modify to strengthen public health protection in future years. This review ensures that existing rules are offering the maximum public health benefit feasible.”

On its face, that appears to be a lot of active effort to keep those lists updated. EWG sees it differently. According to the group, despite the process being in place, it has failed to produce any new and substantive regulation. The 2008 EWG’s report stated that “the track record of the CCL program raises many reasons for concern, because in twelve years of this program’s existence, EPA has not developed drinking water standards for even a single chemical listed in the CCL.”

In an article, this time from 2016, EWG once again pointed to the EPA’s inability to “exercise its authority to protect public health from previously unregulated contaminants.”

The last Regulatory Determination for CLL 3, published in January of 2016, didn’t add any new chemicals to the list and postponed its final determination on one (strontium). The Regulatory Determination for CLL 4 is due in 2021. EWG recognizes some of the chemicals on the CLL 4 list (1,4-Dioxane; 1,2,3-trichloropropane, cyanotoxins, manganese, PFOA, PFOS, nitrosamines, pesticides, and hormones/endocrine disruptors) as potential risks to human health.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

“Since 1996, EPA has been stuck in an endless loop of reviews, seemingly unable to set new standards for numerous contaminants found in drinking water. And without federal regulations, these contaminants continue to threaten the health of many millions of Americans,” author of the previously mentioned report and EWG’s senior science adviser, Olga Naidenko, told 100 Days in an email.

Here are some contamination issues of several zip codes across Appalachia we selected from the Environmental Working Group’s database. We chose to list results for both small and major water utilities.

Although our selection focused exclusively on Appalachian counties, the general pattern that emerged for the Appalachian states as a whole showed that in the case of nine of them (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) the utility companies with the highest number of violations were the ones serving the smallest communities, while for the remaining fours states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama) the same was true, but instead for medium sized communities.

Let’s take a closer look at one example. Oneida Water and Sewer Comm. in Tennessee serves over 11,000 consumers. In the last three years, that specific water utility remained in “significant violation of federal drinking water standards” for the total of nine quarters, and from October 2014 to September 2017 it spent the total of 12 quarters with “violations of federal drinking standards.” The pollutants found in the water that exceeded health standards came from industry, agriculture or were treatment byproducts. All of the chemicals found were above the health guidelines, but below the national guidelines, are known to be related to cancer.

The rest of our selection can be found here.


The Fix

The people of Appalachia tend to value self reliance and, for the most part, manage to avoid the lure of outsiders promising false hopes. Many have accepted the price of living in an environment characterized by extreme costs, whether to their health or their surroundings, and extreme pay offs — to this day working in a mine remains among the highest paying jobs in the region. Rosser described it as a “fatalistic sense of place.”

She has met and talked to people who were outraged over the water infrastructure and water quality, but also exhausted and sick because of those very problems. ”I have stray sewage around me, but even me, working in this field, I try to put it ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ … because I don’t know what to do about it,” she said.

Mountainous populations are often spread out, making it harder to organize and muster mass movement around issues like this, even if they do affect one’s everyday life. Priorities come to a head when basic, immediate needs and more idealistic, long term issues are pitted against each other.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the “Infrastructure Initiativeannounced by the White House in February turned a lot of heads. The water infrastructure element occupies a prominent position within the proposal.

From flood management to waste water treatment facilities, the projects are supposed to be bolstered by the initiative in both direct funding and incentives for private industry to step up.

The $200 billion proposal is estimated by the White House to generate over $1.5 trillion of investment in American infrastructure. $50 billion of the entire federal pot of money is supposed to be funneled into rural America.

Water quality and infrastructure problems across Appalachia, particularly in the states with robust extractive industries and economies often based on boom-bust cycles, like West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky or Pennsylvania, are often intertwined with poverty.

“What I’ve seen and noticed and heard from others is that when you’re in a heavily mined community, you look around and there’s no other jobs, certainly no that pay $60,000 and upwards. … There are communities where water well becomes contaminated but then the company comes in and builds infrastructure for public water system,” Rossier told me.

Keating’s comments echoed that sentiment: “when you’re talking to regular people, it’s about jobs for them … When you’re talking to county commissions it’s about tax revenue … And when you have over 50 percent of the population living … at or below the poverty level, then you have an issue with people’s well-being that isn’t being addressed by the industries that they’re able to get jobs in.”

“So what happens in poor communities is that we were so focused on job creation that we’ll take anything that’s handed to us. We’ve been an extraction colony for over 150 years. It started with railroads and timber and then it went to coal and then it became gas.”

Some in Washington, D.C., including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, question the likelihood of the proposal coming through. “We’re not seeing any money put into it … When you have $1.5 trillion of additional debt because of the tax cut, makes it hard to do anything, so we’re fighting and trying to make sure they’ll be able to (do it). I’ve got water and sewer needs, all over a very challenging terrain,” the senator told me during our brief conversation in late April.

The money dedicated to water infrastructure, and in the infrastructure proposal overall, is meant to encourage investment, meaning the $1.5 trillion is a projection, not hard cash that’s secured for rural America or Appalachia.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

Out of the entire sum, the $50 billion would go to the Rural Infrastructure Program that would include all investments. Here’s how the funds from that pot would be distributed:

  • 80 percent of the funds under the Rural Infrastructure Program would be provided to the governor of each state via formula distribution. The governors, in consultation with a designated federal agency and state directors of rural development, would have discretion to choose individual investments to respond to the unique rural needs of their states.
  • 20 percent of the funds under the Rural Infrastructure Program would be reserved for rural performance grants within eligible asset classes and according to specified criteria.
    • Funds made available to states under this program would be distributed as block grants to be used for infrastructure projects in rural areas with populations of less than 50,000.The Rural Infrastructure Program outlines the following way of determining how rural any given state is:
      Distribution of Rural Infrastructure Program Formula Funds
      The statute would create a “rural formula,” calculated based on rural lane miles and rural population adjusted to reflect policy objectives. Each State would receive no less than a specified statutory minimum and no more than a specified statutory maximum of the Rural Infrastructure Program formula funds, automatically. (p.6-7)

According to the proposal, states could also apply for the Rural Performance grants for specific projects within two years from the enactment of the infrastructure proposal. Grants would be available for up to ten years, or until the funds run dry.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

Asked about his take on the private industry picking up the tab, Sen. Manchin said that, in his view, private industry is good for more urbanized areas, but that “in rural America … there’s not enough market. If somebody wants to come in and when they do, they will take the lion share and not make it any easier at all for people who live there.”

Rosser shared a similar view: “there’s no incentive unless they (private companies) are heavily subsidized.”

April Keating and others we talked to think the proposal’s language is a code for more leaniacy towards big businesses.

And that’s an important point to keep in mind. The administration’s proposal pushes for more engagement on the part of private industry by easing the permitting process, extending tax exemptions, or lessening the oversight, while at the same time arguing for benefits for the citizens and disregarding rampant environmental and health dangers.

Here are some examples we highlighted of language found in the actual document outlining the infrastructure initiative.

Asked about its position on the funding related to water infrastructure in the President’s Infrastructure Initiative, an EPA official who wanted to remain unnamed admitted that the agency is not familiar with its specifics.

Although the funding itself for the initiative seems to be in question, it is worrisome that the agency that could be involved — in different capacities — with many of the projects looking to receive money from the proposal is not familiar with its details.

Issues involving the EPA range from extending permits’ legibility from five years under the Clean Water Act to 15 years to, in some cases, allowing for automatic renewals to providing tax incentives to invite private investments in water infrastructure such as sewage facilities, solid waste disposal facilities or in environmental remediation costs on Brownfield and Superfund sites.

While political pressures first influence the shape of laws, it’s also the political appointments at the level of the Cabinet Secretary of the Governor that lead the enforcement by West Virginia’s State Department of Environmental Protection.

Another piece of the puzzle is the failure to keep people and companies accountable.

Keating told 100 Days that the mining companies often struggle with the disposal of waste, and use methods that are controversial to say the least. “Now they’re talking about spraying it on roads. The brine itself that comes out of the earth is ten times saltier than seawater. And so even the brine without the chemicals would kill anything.”

Appalachian communities tend to show a lot of mistrust towards government regulations, just as they show mistrust to the very industries that have been the economic backbone of the region. Rosser thinks that missing trust is a big part of the problem, but the current politics don’t make it any easier for people to change their minds.

For example, on April 23 West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued his third executive order expediting permitting procedures for businesses, following two that rolled back and halted industry regulations. He also put a moratorium on new regulation and set up an expedited process for permit approvals for certain projects.

“Political forces and benefits to industry do get favor, sometimes over the science or what’s in public interest in terms of environmental protection and health protection,” Rosser said.

The recent “Almost Heaven” ad campaign was designed to promote tourism in West Virginia. Yet, Rosser said that “when you travel in West Virginia, water is everywhere and some pollution is invisible. It looks good. It looks pretty … We don’t know what’s in the water,” she pointed out. Ironically, a majority of the video ad showcases pristine-looking streams and creeks.

But water infrastructure investment could be a part of something much broader than providing essential services.

According to professor of geography Martina Angela Caretta of West Virginia University, “If there was a concerted effort … to put more money into restoring infrastructure, restoring rivers and really pushing this restoration economy, would actually be a big push towards transitioning of the economy of Appalachia.”

Prof. Caretta believes there is a workforce ready to take on those jobs, as well as plenty of grassroots organizing happening around the state. We will take a closer look at those individuals and organizations ready and willing to take on economic and environmental challenges.


This is the first of a two-part series. Part two of this article profiles individuals and groups across the region that focus on solving problems diagnosed here.

Writing and reporting: Jan Pytalski
Editing: Lovey Cooper, Colleen Good
Infographics: Shayla Klein
Additional reporting and videography: Emily Pelland

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