While Washington Debates, Appalachians Wait for Investments in Clean Water

Just because the water that comes out of your tap meets federal drinking water standards doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink. At least, that’s what researchers at the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based water advocacy organization, say.

Since 2012, EWG has been collecting the results of millions of drinking water quality tests from states across the country, every few years releasing their database and its findings to the public. 

This month, the 2019 update to EWG’s Tap Water Database shows what people living in central Appalachia who often struggle with the quality of– or even basic access to– the vital resource already know: The quality of our water is not necessarily getting better. And advocates, activists and even entrepreneurs say, at least to some degree, inaction in Washington is to blame. 

The 2019 Tap Water Database Findings

The EWG Tap Water Database tracks the appearance of certain contaminants in more than 50,000 public drinking water systems nationwide, looking for pesticides, arsenic and PFAS, a family of chemicals used in the production of products like Teflon that have been tied to increased rates of cancer and other diseases. 

The most previous version of the database, released in 2017, found more than 250 chemical and agricultural contaminants in the drinking water of millions of Americans. At the time, EWG President Ken Cook said in a press release, “it’s time to stop basing environmental regulations on political or economic compromises, and instead listen to what scientists say about the long-term effects of toxic chemicals.” 

Millions of residents in central Appalachian states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and Tennessee were impacted by the findings that EWG releases to advocate for updates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, first approved by Congress in 1974.

“Our Tap Water Database shines a light on an ugly reality: The Safe Drinking Water Act is broken, and the water millions of Americans drink is contaminated with unhealthy pollutants,” Cook said in a 2019 release.

So, what’s changed in the two years since the last database update? According to EWG, not much.

Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG, who worked on the latest update, said the last significant changes Congress made to the Safe Drinking Water Act came in 1996, requiring the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection look to the best peer reviewed science on water quality findings to guide its oversight of drinking water, among other things. But EWG’s findings, Stoiber said, show more needs to be done today.

“I believe about half of the contaminants that we’ve detected this round were from drinking water contaminants that are unregulated,” Stoinber pointed out. “So, basically, science has not kept pace with what we’re already seeing in our drinking water.”

In several central Appalachian communities, the number of contaminants exceeding the EWG’s health guidelines increased in the 2019 report, compared to 2017 findings. In a sampling of those communities, listed in the table below, 11 of 20 utilities in Appalachian towns saw an increase in the total number of contaminants detected in the water.

Location

2017 Update

2019 Update

Bluefield Area (WV)

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

13 detected contaminants

8 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

13 detected contaminants

Lewisburg Area (WV) 

8 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

15 detected contaminants

6 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

15 detected contaminants

Coal Mountain area (WV)

Serious violations of federal standards

Serious violations of federal standards

White Cottage area (OH)

8 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

14 detected contaminants

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

16detected contaminants

Hamden area (OH)

8 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

14 detected contaminants

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

16 detected contaminants

Martin area (KY)

5  contaminants exceeding health guidelines

12 detected contaminants

4  contaminants exceeding health guidelines

15 detected contaminants

Pikeville area (KY) 

6 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

12 detected contaminants

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

12  detected contaminants

Campton area (KY)

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

7 detected contaminants

3 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

8 detected contaminants

Marsteller area (PA)

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

7 detected contaminants 

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

7 detected contaminants

Fredericktown (PA) 

6 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

12 detected contaminants

6contaminants exceeding health guidelines

14 detected contaminants

Central City area (PA)

0 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

1 detected contaminants

0contaminants exceeding health guidelines

1 detected contaminants

Tupelo area (MS) 

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

14 detected contaminants

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

17 detected contaminants

Chattanooga area (TN)

5 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

6 detected contaminants

5 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

7 detected contaminants

Oneida area (TN)

3 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

4 detected contaminants

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

9 detected contaminants

Mt Airy (NC)

1 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

1 detected contaminants

1 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

1 detected contaminants

Jonesville (NC)

6 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

9 detected contaminants

6 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

11 detected contaminants

Wedowee (AL)

3 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

8 detected contaminants

7 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

14 detected contaminants

Tuskegee (AL) 

5 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

6 detected contaminants

4 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

10 detected contaminants

Carnesville (GA)

5 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

10 detected contaminants

10 contaminants exceeding health guidelines

15 detected contaminants

While the finding of new contaminates in a community’s drinking water doesn’t automatically mean that the quality is worse, it could have cumulative effects scientists are not aware of yet. Contaminants measured above federal health guidelines should of course be concerning, Stoiber said, but people should not write off the ones that measure below the limits either. 

“A lot of these [contaminants] are drinking water disinfection byproducts, and we would be concerned about those as a group,” Stoiber said. “They often have the same kind of health effects in the body and they target the same areas in the body. So we’re worried about those in terms of their effect on your risk for cancer.”

According to Stoiber, some of the top contaminants in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio are in fact disinfection byproducts, but also another chemical compound that’s becoming more and more known in the region: PFAS. 

According to the group’s website “highly toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS continue to grow at an alarming rate. As of October 2019, 1,026 locations in 49 states are known to be affected.” 

This interactive map shows approximate areas of contamination with PFAS compounds. Southern Appalachian states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, as well as Central Appalachia seem to see most of the pollution in the region. 

The scale of the problem is not fully known, or understood yet. Stoiber said testing for PFAS compounds started only recently. “The more that we test for them, the more that we’re finding them. They may have been there for decades, but we didn’t know until we actually had the data.”

This group of chemicals has led Appalachians, especially those living in the Ohio River Valley, to call on their national representatives to update drinking water testing requirements, but so far, little has happened– with testing for PFAS or any other contaminant and even with investments that would help prevent or remove contaminants from rural water systems. 

The lack of action in D.C. has led many in the region to step up and take action on their own. 

For Appalachia, the Problems Remain

For six years during the early 2000s and 2010s, Teri Blanton traveled the U.S. as part of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Created in the early 1990s, the council advises the U.S. EPA on any and all issues that pertain to environmental justice, recommending ways the federal agency should tackle some of the most pressing issues in the space. 

Now a fellow at Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots community organization focused on issues that affect the state’s working class, Blanton said in her time on the council, “the common denominator in all of it was the access to clean water, in every community that we went into.” 

Years later, it continues to be the biggest challenge, she said, at the very least for Kentucky if not elsewhere. But in her advisory role on the NEJAC, Blanton and her fellow council members’ recommendations were just that– recommendations. She said they had no real clout to create change for communities who lacked that access. That takes legislation.

Investing in infrastructure improvements, however, especially for water in rural communities, is not a politically sexy issue. Advocates and activists like Blanton struggle to get policy leaders to listen to the large, sometimes urgent, needs, both in terms of access to reliable drinking water and the necessary funding to clean up local waterways still reeling from decades of pollution. New legislation is often thought of as controversial, meanwhile, previously approved laws are at risk of going away.

West Virginian Amanda Pitzer pointed to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which is up for reauthorization in 2021, as an example. While it may seem like a significant amount of time before Congress actually considers reauthorization, Pitzer knows these issues aren’t cut and dry and often take years of negotiations and coalition building to achieve.

She’s the executive director of Friends of the Cheat, an organization working to restore the Cheat River Watershed in northern West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania, which was devastated for decades by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. Work like hers is dependent on a reauthorization, even in the face of a Congress that often refuses to act.

“Congress is going to have to get their act together and reauthorize the collection of abandoned mine land fees, and reauthorize that law on that program. Because if they don’t, all of the abandoned mines and land work will essentially stop,” Pitzer warned.

The programs established under SMCRA assist in the reclamation of waterways much like the Cheat River, but Pitzer said that’s not all. SMCA also provides funding for crucial water line extensions and other economic development projects.

But in the nation’s current political climate, laws to reclaim land polluting community waterways or strengthen drinking water standards pit two sides against each other, environmentalists on one side, business and economic development on the other. 

Throughout Appalachia, however, a number of people are working to bring those two sides together.

Moving Toward a Blue Economy

In 2014, a coal cleaning chemical leaked into the drinking water supply of West Virginia’s capital city. As a result, 300,000 people in the state were left without access to potable water for, in some cases, as many as 14 days. Residents were told not to drink, cook or clean with what was coming out of their taps. Use only in cases of fire, people in the area still recall being directed. 

Signs like this one at Charleston Bread in Charleston, West Virginia, illustrate how local businesses were forced to temporarily close in the wake of the 2014 spill. They and other businesses soon reopened but they took a significant hit because of the water crisis. Photo: Dave Mistich/WVPB

As a result, Nicolas Zegre, Associate Professor of forest hydrology and director of the mountain hydrology lab at West Virginia University, estimates the local economy took a $60 million hit. It was a health and environmental issue, sure, but an economic one as well.

“Right now, water is kind of taken for granted in water rich regions like Appalachia. But when you start thinking about the issue of water scarcity, you can see how that can collapse an economy very quickly,” Zegre said. 

Access to clean water and the security of an economy are interconnected, Zegre believes. The juxtaposition that Appalachians can only have access to one or the other, he said, has to be broken in order to move forward. 

“There are large economic benefits in the local area to addressing acid mine drainage. One of those benefits is pumping money into the restoration economy, actually paying companies and people to do the restoration work the reclamation work,” said Evan Hansen, a principal at the West Virginia-based environmental and economic development consulting firm Downstream Strategies and member of the West Virginia House of Delegates.

It’s called a blue economy, according to Zegre, and parts of Appalachia are finding success in publicizing their access to clean water for a number of uses. One is tourism. 

That’s the story of the Cheat River and Pitzer’s work at Friends of the Cheat. Decades of high pH levels from acid mine drainage killed off wildlife in the river and its tributaries, but by working directly with private landowners on reclamation work, Friends of the Cheat has been able to bring the river back to life. 

Muddy Creek, a tributary of the river, is the most recent success story. Heavily polluted when the restoration work began in the early 1990s, Muddy Creek is being readied to become a trout hatchery connected to the Cheat River in its lower 3.4 miles, drawing in anglers from across the region. It’s pristine rapids draw white water rafters and swimmers hang out along the river’s swimming holes in the summer months– all part of the recreation industry and all due to the success of Friends of the Cheat partnering with industry, not fighting them. 

“There’s a culture here of mining and engagement with the mining industry. So working with industry was really a bridge. We wanted to come to the community with an open hand […] because we need that local landowner buy in. We could’ve really alienated ourselves from the community if we were suing their employers,” Pitzer said.

In fact, the first reclamation project completed by the group was fully funded by Anker, a mining company that has since been bought out by a larger corporation. The company sponsored the first passive treatment project at the total cost of around $200,000. 

“It’s really bought us some credibility with local folks and kind of broke down that stereotype of dislike, of us versus them, you’re either a friend of coal or you’re not,” Pitzer said.

Access to clean water has also attracted significant investment to Appalachian cities in other industries aside from tourism, though. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Zegre said the tech sector relies on water from the Monongahela River, which also has a history of pollution due to both surface and underground coal mining.   

In Asheville, North Carolina, a different industry took root as New Belgium turned an 18 acre brownfield into a brewery that can produce up to half a million barrels of beer each year on the banks of the French Broad River. 

The company chose Asheville for its clean, municipal water supply and its resemblance to the Colorado water the company uses in its other brewery in Fort Collins. Its similar mineral composition helps to save money on the front end of the operation.

Their more than 130,000 square foot facility sits on a site that was once polluted by previous industrial development. But New Belgium has partnered with local organizations to clean up that site, providing them an Appalachian home while benefiting their new neighbors.

“Penland Creek, which actually goes through the property, turned into a really big project that we partner with Equinox Environmental on because we wanted to use the water flowing through our property as an opportunity to clean up the water,” Michael Craft, New Belgium’s community ambassador, explained. “So it was designed to have these filtering pools…and [the water] has a chance to get this pond treatment, for lack of a better term, [and] cleaned up before it hits the river.”

Beyond the work on its own property, New Belgium is also lobbying for better care and stewardship of the natural environment in Asheville with local politicians through engagement with other businesses and coalitions like Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, coordinated by the nonprofit organization Ceres. Between 2012 and 2018, the company supported financially 17 organizations dedicated to water stewardship in the region.

Sarah Fraser, a sustainability specialist at the brewery in Asheville, now works as a lobbyist for New Belgium after years advocating in the non-profit sector. She said having the backing of industry has made a difference in her work. 

“When they hear from businesses, particularly talking with conservative lawmakers, their ears seem to perk up and they ask questions, and they seem to pay a little bit more attention,” she said.

The success of these partnerships of activists and industry may be a possible solution to getting lawmakers, both locally and nationally, to work toward more stringent environmental regulations and funding to clean-up polluted waterways. But the region’s issues are exclusive to pollution. Congress has also done little to invest in reliable water infrastructure, especially in rural regions like Appalachia. 

Nearly Two Years Later, Consensus on Infrastructure Remains a Pipe Dream

It’s been nearly 18 months since the White House presented Congress with a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and create potentially thousands of jobs in the process. Appalachia stood to see some significant gain under the proposed plan

The bill includes $200 billion in new government spending, which the White House predicts would attract the additional trillion-plus dollar amount through outside investments. A quarter of that initial spending, some $50 billion, would be earmarked specifically for rural programs, including improvements to water infrastructure. 

But aside from Democrats pioneering some conversations in June around environmental justice issues, Congress as a whole has done almost nothing to progress the president’s proposal or any other infrastructure investment plans. And with a vote expected this week to formalize public impeachment proceedings, it’s unlikely the issue will take center stage any time soon.

Prof. Martina Caretta, a researcher investigating the human dimensions of water at the West Virginia University, says in order to succeed in securing new investments in water infrastructure, activists have to successfully engage communities in the process and encourage them to pressure their lawmakers.

In the course of her research, Caretta has been working with West Virginia stakeholders, local organizers and activists – all of them invested in raising the quality of the state’s watersheds.

“You have to understand what is the history, how are people organized, how are relationships between people, so that bringing new infrastructure, or restoring infrastructure[…]will not exclude a certain part of the population, or will not harshen relationships between different groups,” Caretta said. 

She believes that given the funding and resources available, West Virginians are doing well when it comes to monitoring the water quality and organizing around environmental issues. But part of the conversation surrounding water infrastructure has always been about private industry investing and privatizing elements of it. That, according to Carreta, is something to be cautious of.

“Privatization that is done by companies, or entities that are from out of state, because they don’t have that direct relationship with the community, that don’t understand the local dynamics, are most often only geared towards economic profit,” she said.

Her point is simple and powerful: If something has a price tag, there will be people who can’t afford it. It’s a familiar sentiment in Appalchian communities that have an abundance of resources, but always seem to ship them elsewhere, for someone else’s benefit. 

“It doesn’t need to be either or,” Caretta said. According to the scholar, there’s nothing stopping investments in industries that are already in place and investing more in restoration efforts and water infrastructure. 

For Congress, There’s Just One Thing Left to Do– Act

At the end of the day, WVU’s Zegre believes people are largely open to new ideas and innovations when it comes to strengthening their economies. They want the jobs and they are ready to embrace alternatives, like those that could come through monetizing clean water as a resource for business development and recreational attraction. 

But, “alternatives haven’t been presented,” Zegre said, and new ideas and new investments have been slow.

Zegre sees West Virginia– the only state to lie fully in the Appalachian region– as a potential leader in solving problems related to water quality and quantity, because it has an “abundance of both of those.” He’d like to see shifts in the tech sector or even the creation of a new industry fully focused on water-related issues– figuring out how to use water sustainably across different facets of a diverse economy. That kind of development is crucial to the future of our country, he said.

“Water security is economic security, economic security is national security,” Zegre said. 

But Congress has yet to see it through his eyes and bills that would aid in the reclamation of polluted streams or provide investments in infrastructure that would ensure all Americans, not just Appalachians, have access to clean drinking water are overshadowed.

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