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Access to Clean Water

While Washington Debates, Appalachians Wait for Investments in Clean Water

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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.

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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Access to Clean Water

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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