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Access to Clean Water

Study Finds West Virginia Counties Among ‘Worst in Nation’ For Drinking Water Violations

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Photo: Dave Mistich/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A new study released Tuesday by three environmental groups found more than half of West Virginia counties rank among the worst in the nation for violations of a federal law that protects the quality of drinking water in the U.S. 

The report, “Watered Down Justice,” ranked 36 of the state’s 55 counties among the top third worst-offending U.S. counties. 

The analysis found millions of people across the country, including thousands in West Virginia, consumed water from drinking systems that were out of compliance with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Small, often rural, community water systems were among the top offenders, along with systems responsible for serving communities of color and low socioeconomic conditions. 

In West Virginia, where much of the state’s residents live rurally, many people depend on small community water systems.  

Systems nationwide serving less than 3,300 people accounted for more than 80 percent of all SDWA violations, according to the study. Even smaller systems, serving less than 500 people, were reportedly responsible for more than 60 percent of all SDWA violations, and for 50 percent of health-based violations. 

At a press conference at the Capitol in Charleston Tuesday afternoon, a series of speakers, including two state lawmakers and representatives from environmental groups, said the study not only found West Virginia counties violated the SDWA often, but also spent a lot of time not complying with the law in general. According to the report, 42 West Virginia counties are among the top third in the nation for counties who spend the most time out of compliance. 

What Is The SDWA?

Three environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance — analyzed health-based violations of the SDWA between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2019. 

The SDWA was established in 1974. This act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate drinking water sources and to protect residents from both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants. 

The EPA sets legal limits on more than 90 contaminants in drinking water, including chemical contaminants, lead and copper. These contaminants can lead to a large swath of health problems affecting a variety of ages, including cancer and impaired brain development.

When it comes to public water systems, the EPA regulates those that provide water to at least 15 service connections, or at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year. 

Quality Of Life ‘Inseparable’ From Quality Of Water

Drinking water faces many threats, including those from chemicals and the improper disposal of human and animal waste. 

In 2014, a chemical spill near Charleston left more than 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for a week after a storage tank at Freedom Industries leaked more than 10,000 gallons of toxic materials into the Elk River. In 2000, dangerous levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, were discovered in water systems, coming from chemical company DuPont’s plant near Parkersburg. Earlier this year, officials discovered chemical water contaminants in Wetzel County. 

“We all know West Virginia is no stranger to our water contamination,” said Pam Nixon, President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety.

Since the 2014 incident, Nixon said she has noticed signs and reactions to the “water crisis” everywhere, including grocery stores. 

“People in West Virginia realize that our water is contaminated,” she said. “We’ve noticed from 2014 to now, how the section for bottled water has expanded. And when you look, there are, unfortunately, some people who really can’t afford to buy water, they don’t feel comfortable drinking it, so they’re buying bottled water. You can see it in the carts.”

Rick Martin, president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the spill in 2014 was an “unforgettable experience,” and “difficult to forgive, particularly in low-income communities and our communities of color.” 

According to the report, findings showed a relationship between sociodemographic characteristics at the county level, like race and income, and those counties’ drinking water violations. 

“Quality of life and quality of water go hand in hand,” Martin said. “They’re inseparable.” 

Martin said there will be a push next year to reintroduce House Bill 2153 and Senate Bill 573, both of which failed in 2019. These bills would create a minority health advisory team to assist local communities in developing plans to address local public health crises, like water contamination. 

Democratic West Virginia Dels. Mike Pushkin and Evan Hansen also spoke at the press conference. 

Pushkin, who lives on the west side of Charleston, referred to his area as “ground zero” for the 2014 spill. He said the report came as “no surprise to those of us who have lived here for a long time.”

“Charleston still has not fully recovered,” Pushkin said. “This part of the state still hasn’t fully recovered from that industrial disaster that took place in January 2014.”

He described the “amount of people who moved out of the area, some of the businesses that closed up and still haven’t come back.”

“Since then … I have seen the Legislature roll back the Aboveground Storage Tank Act that was passed as a reaction to that chemical spill. … I have seen the weakening of water quality standards every year,” he said. 

Pushkin said he rejects the narrative that deregulation is needed to attract and retain businesses to West Virginia. 

“This narrative that we’re being fed is a lie,” he added. “We saw businesses that shut down because of the chemical spill in 2014.”

According to the report, there were 170,959 violations of the SDWA in 24,133 community water systems across the U.S. 

Almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to the report, consumed water from drinking systems that violated the SDWA. 

Researchers found 437 counties, mostly in the southwest part of the country, spent the longest average lengths of time, out of compliance, per drinking system.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Access to Clean Water

Ohio Valley Residents Among Millions In America Lacking Access To Clean Water, Sanitation

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Photo: Courtesy Red Bird Mission

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Communities across the Ohio Valley are among an estimated 2 million Americans that do not have consistent access to clean drinking water and basic indoor plumbing, according to a report published in November by two nonprofits, DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report titled, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” synthesized data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, including its American Community Survey, to identify six areas of the country where access to clean water is lagging. That includes some communities in Appalachia, which the report lists among six “hot spots” for inadequate water access.

“From all the data sources we looked at, we know at least 2 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to running water or a working flush toilet,” said George McGraw, founder of DigDeep. “But we also know because of some errors with the census that the number is probably much higher than that.”

The analysis finds people of color, low-income individuals living in rural areas, tribal communities, and immigrants are more likely to go without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than any other group to have trouble accessing clean water.

The report states there are multiple reasons why some communities find themselves lacking access to clean water. One is a steep decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. Historical discrimination has also played a role.

In the 1980s, the federal government started placing more emphasis on loans over grants for water infrastructure. As a result, federal funding for water and wastewater systems has dropped from 63 percent in 1977 to less than 9 percent today.

Nationwide, the report finds the number of Americans without access to complete plumbing has declined. Between 2000 and 2014, those without water access dropped from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. However, the rate of decline has fallen in recent decades. For example, between 1950 and 1970 the percentage of the population lacking complete plumbing dropped from 27 percent to 5.9 percent.

“This suggests that the remaining communities lacking access face particularly entrenched challenges,” the report states.

Further analysis of state-level data by researchers at Michigan State University showed that while states made improvements, others including, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, saw the number of people without access to clean water grow.

“We’re worried in those places fewer people might have access to a working tap or toilet tomorrow than they do today,” McGraw said. “That’s a very alarming trend in a country that is as prosperous and has been as successful as we in extending services to all.”

West Virginia

In McDowell County, West Virginia, for example, the authors highlight three communities where crumbling infrastructure and population loss are creating a perfect storm.

In the town of Keystone, for example, the water system was constructed decades ago by coal companies that no longer exist. Today, the community, which stopped funding its police department in 2018, does not have the tax base to repair the leaking pipes.

In the nearby community of Mile Branch, many residents are not connected to any type of water system. Instead, some collect water from streams or other natural sources.

But the springs and wells many people used to gather drinking water may not be safe either.

When households are not connected to sewer systems or septic systems, waste is sometimes piped straight into nearby streams. The practice, also known as straight piping, can contaminate water used for drinking and cause health problems including staph infections and gastrointestinal issues. Water sampling from 2012-2014 in southeastern Kentucky found as many as 64 percent of the sites exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for E. coli bacteria.

Despite the region’s challenges, the report’s authors also highlight solutions across Appalachia that boost access to clean water.

For example, in McDowell County, the authors profiled the Five Loaves & Two Fishes food bank, which has become the de facto source of bottled water across the county. As a trusted organization within the community, the food bank is able to not only deliver drinking water, but check in with elderly and other vulnerable residents.

In southeastern Kentucky, the faith-based organization Red Bird Mission has installed a water filling station. The authors note that some residents fill up at night to avoid being seen, “an indication that life without water access still carries a stigma.”

Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance, said the prolonged failure to provide water and sanitation access in Appalachia is, in part, a question of the country’s priorities. She said while for most communities local taxes can fund maintenance and service, in impoverished, rural communities that may not be the case.

“We need to honor communities that live in rural America,” Fox said. “And when maybe the math might not always pencil out, we need to figure out how we utilize public investment to build that water safety net for those communities as well.”

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W.Va. Democratic Lawmakers Announce Plans To Tackle PFAS Chemicals

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West Virginia Del. Evan Hansen. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals. 

Del. Evan Hansen, who represents most of Monongalia County, and a group of colleagues, said the “Clean Drinking Water Act” would address the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also called PFAS chemicals. The class of chemicals includes C8, or PFOA, the chemical produced and dumped in the Parkersburg area for decades by chemical giant DuPont. 

The effect of the chemical and related events were recently brought to the silver screen in the blockbuster film, “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hatheway. 

Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP would be required to monitor these facilities and regulate their discharges of these chemicals into waterways. Currently, PFAS chemicals are unregulated nationwide. 

The second component of the bill would set legally-enforceable drinking water limits, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for some PFAS chemicals. 

The legislation comes at a time when both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators are increasingly testing for, finding and seeking regulations for these so-called “forever chemicals.”

In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. The chemicals are widely used including in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon.

Ohio announced in September it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In Berkeley County, federal researchers are currently studying residents’ exposure to C8 after it was found at a water treatment plant in Martinsburg. The contamination was likely due to groundwater contamination from the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, which used PFAS-laden firefighting foam.

Research conducted in the Mid Ohio Valley after DuPont’s settlement over C8 contamination linked chemical exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease, as well as testicular and kidney cancer.

“I think we owe it to the citizens of West Virginia, especially considering we were ground zero for the impacts of many of these chemicals, we owe it to the people of West Virginia to take matters into our own hands,” Hansen said.

The EPA is currently weighing how to set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA. A handful of states have set their own limits, much lower than the EPA’s current health advisory of 60 parts-per-trillion. 

Hansen said if the bill is passed, West Virginia would examine both EPA’s decisions and state actions. He also noted he hopes to put safeguards in the legislation so that if contamination is found, rate payers and cash-strapped municipalities won’t be on the hook for paying for cleanup. 

“What we are going to get out of this is the chance of transparency,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which supports the bill. “Companies will have to tell us what is in our water.”

Rosser and others said clean water is key to boosting the state’s economy. 

“The people of our state know polluting industries drive away clean industries,” said Del. John Doyle, a Democrat from Jefferson County. 

When asked about the bill’s chances of making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature, Hansen said he recognized it could be a tough sell, but said he’s open to hearing any ideas from his colleagues across the aisle or other interested groups. 

“I don’t think clean drinking water is a partisan issue,” he said. 

During the 2020 session, Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, said he also intends to reintroduce a proposed amendment to the state’s Bill of Rights that would enshrine clean air, water and the preservation of the natural environment as constitutional rights for current and future generations. 

The measure was introduced last session and had more than 30 co-sponsors. Two other states — Pennsylvania and Montana — have adopted a similar constitutional amendment. If passed, the environmental rights amendment would serve as a guiding principle for state leaders and regulatory agencies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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W.Va. Food Bank Trying Out Hydro-Panels For Clean Water Needs

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The Five Loaves and Two Fishes Foodbank has 24 hydro-panels for water-gathering in Kimball, West Virginia. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In McDowell County, West Virginia, access to clean water can be a challenge. Aging infrastructure, a shrinking tax base and lack of oversight affect the region’s water quality. That is why one community food bank is trying something different, to provide cleaner water to some who are in need.

Earlier this month, the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank and outreach center in Kimball debuted its new set of hydro-panels to the McDowell County community. 

They are like solar panels, but instead of using sunlight to create electricity, these hydro-panels pull moisture from the air and filter it with sunlight, to produce clean water.

According to information from developer Zero Amounts, each panel can hold up to eight gallons at a time in a mineralized reservoir. How fast the panels gather and filter water depends on how much sunlight is available, and the humidity. 

Linda McKinney pours a sample of water from her food bank’s hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Altogether, food bank director Linda McKinney said her 24 panels should hold 192 gallons at full capacity. That might seem like a lot, but Five Loaves and Two Fishes provides food and other essentials to more than 800 McDowell County families each month. Bottled water is one of their most requested items. 

“There’s no way with that amount of panels that we could, you know, supplement everybody in the county with enough water,” McKinney said. 

“It is a small start, but it’s better than no water. That’s what I say about food. You know, a lot of times we don’t get the healthiest food, and I always tell people [that] in my world, some food is better than no food. You know, it keeps your stomach from growling.”

Linda McKinney’s husband shows a picture of a shed, from which they hope to pump water from their food bank’s new hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The food bank got the hydro-panels with help from a California-based nonprofit called Dig Deep, which McKinney said visited McDowell County over the summer for a water quality study it released earlier this month.

“Dig deep was here for about a week,” she recalled. “And then they went back, and I kept in contact with this lady named Nora Nelson … and then one day she said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity, I think that would benefit you guys.’”

Dig Deep connected McKinney with Zero Amounts and the one2one USA Foundation, which paid for the panels. 

McKinney said she has not had to spend anything on the project herself. She added that she expects it to be fully operational by spring.

She and her husband were installing a shed a few feet away from the panels on Friday, where she will be able to pump water into one-and-five-gallon jugs for distribution.

Contractors still need to install pipes to connect the panels and the pump.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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