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Access to Clean Water

EPA Proposes Changes To Federal Coal Ash, Wastewater Rules



Photo: Kentucky Division of Waste Management

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Federal environmental regulators released proposed changes to two rules related to the disposal of coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced its third round of changes to its 2015 rule regulating coal ash. Coal ash is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains toxic compounds like arsenic, lead and radium. Dozens of the waste sites dot the Ohio Valley, often along rivers.

The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration extended the closure deadline through October 2020. Now, it’s proposing to move the deadline two months sooner, in part to address legal challenges surrounding the rule.

The rule also lays out a series of provisions that would allow coal ash sites to remain open longer, including if the nearby coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close. Sites can also request a closure extension if the plant needs time to figure out how to dispose of other waste being placed into coal ash sites.

“At first glance they’re like, ‘oh, it used to be October. Now it’s August — that’s better,’” said Larissa Liebmann, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. “But then they’ve created all these alternatives, which give them this extra time based on various issues.”

The toxic residue from burning coal is a major concern in the Ohio Valley. An analysis by the ReSource and partner station WFPL found nearly every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.

Click here to explore our interactive coal ash map. Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

That mirrors data collected on a national level. An analysis of data collected under the 2015 coal ash rule, released this year by environmental groups, found more than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

Effluent Rule

The EPA is also proposing changes to another 2015 rule that regulates water discharged from power plants, also known as effluent.

The Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. The rule required affected plants to install technology to reduce discharge.

Similar to the coal ash regulation, the wastewater rule was also embroiled in legal challenges.

In its proposed updates, the EPA is relaxing some pollution limits and extending the compliance deadline by two years. In exchange, the agency is promoting its voluntary incentives program.

In a press release, EPA said the new effluent rule would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost.

Environmental groups disagree and argue the rule change will instead expose millions of people to toxic pollution.

“Not only does [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s proposal eliminate some of the strongest pollution limits required by the 2015 rule, it carves out new polluter loopholes for the industry,” Jennifer Peters, with Clean Water Action, said in a statement. “Wheeler’s proposal also claims that power plants will voluntarily adopt new, stricter standards, despite the fact that a similar program existed in the 2015 rule, and virtually no coal plants adopted it.”

Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised EPA’s efforts to rewrite the effluent rule.

Access to Clean Water

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.


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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Access to Clean Water

Water Is Unaffordable for Nearly Half of This Kentucky County’s Residents



Photo: Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

A new report finds nearly half the residents of Martin County, Kentucky, cannot afford water service. Local activists with the Martin County Concerned Citizens are ringing alarm bells about water affordability as the beleaguered county faces another likely water rate increase in the coming months. 

Since the ReSource first reported on its water crisis two years ago, Martin County has become the prime example of rural communities struggling to maintain aging water systems.  

The county in eastern Kentucky’s coal country is one of the poorest in the state, but it boasts the eighth-highest average water bill out of the 141 districts regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission, according to the analysts behind a new report. Despite the high cost of service, Martin County’s ailing and outdated water system has left residents without water for days at a time, often delivers water that is undrinkable, and some residents claim it makes them sick. 

Soon, Martin County residents are likely to face a water rate increase that will mean more than half the county’s residents cannot afford water. 

As populations in rural America continue to drop, the rising cost of maintaining aging water systems falls on fewer residents. In central Appalachia, where average incomes are well below the national average, the burden imposed by those rising costs can be too much to bear. 

“There are many places in Kentucky where the citizens simply can’t afford to pay the rates necessary to get the repairs done,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center.

“Captive Customers” 

Martin County is under investigation for the third time since 2002 for financial mismanagement, service interruptions and excessive water loss. The district has violated federal water quality standards 90 times since 2001, according to the report, and data from the Public Service Commission shows that Martin County loses up to 70 percent of the water it treats before the water reaches residents’ taps. 

In a recent order, the PSC called the district’s condition “grim and desperate.” PSC Chairman Michael Schmitt added, “residents of Martin County are, unfortunately, the captive customers of what most certainly has been, over the last two decades, the most poorly operated water district in the state of Kentucky.” 

A still image from a video of foul water in a Martin County home. Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Citizen

Once a coal-producing mecca, Martin County has seen employment fall by 32 percent since July 2010. The water affordability analysis showed that 25 percent of Martin County residents live on $15,000 per year or less, with about 18 percent surviving on just $10,000 or less. 

“When you’re making less than $10,000 a year, pretty much everything is unaffordable,” said Cromer, who is representing Martin County residents in proceedings with the PSC. 

National and international bodies have guidelines to help water districts price water at an affordable level. The United Nations says water is unaffordable when it costs more than 3 percent of household income; the Environmental Protection Agency places that figure at 2.5 percent. 

According to the report, which was produced by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the community group Martin County Concerned Citizens, 46 percent of all Martin County residents are paying a share of household income that exceeds the EPA guidelines. Martin County’s poorest residents, those earning less than $10,000 per year, pay as much as 6.5 percent of their income toward water bills. 

The report found that Breathitt County, Kentucky, has the state’s highest water burden, at 2.7 percent, and Martin County has the second-highest at 2.4 percent. Customers in Martin County are spending 75 percent more of their income on their water bills than are customers in Oldham County, which has the state’s lowest water burden. 

The potential upcoming increase could be the second within a year, after a series of rate hearings increased the average bill by 41 percent since January 2018 to an average of $54.37 per household in November of the same year.

The November increase also mandated that Martin County hire an outside management company to run the district’s affairs, the key move that will likely render another rate hike necessary.

Missouri-based Alliance Water Resources was the only company to submit a bid and is currently negotiating the terms of the contract with the Martin County water board. 

“We feel pretty confident, from our conversations with Alliance Water Resources, and just looking at what it would take for a for-profit company to run the district, that it’s going to require another rate increase,” Cromer said.

At a recent meeting of concerned citizens at Martin County High School, residents expressed anger that their limited dollars would be used to pay a for-profit, out-of-state company. 

“Don’t we have nobody here who could manage us?” asked one attendee. 

PSC spokesperson Andrew Melnykovych said in a recent interview that an additional rate increase is not necessarily guaranteed as a result of hiring outside management. “It would depend on what the cost of the new management is relative to what they are paying now for their internal management services. And are there operational efficiencies that are going to be achieved through outside management that reduce cost somewhere else?”

Martin Countians are already struggling to pay. In a system with 3,500 customers, 300 disconnect notices were issued in July alone, according to the report, and the district has gone so far as to arrest a resident for stealing water. 

With a 25 percent increase in water rates, the water burden on Martin County’s poorest residents could rise to 8.2 percent. 

“I barely make it from month to month now,” said a Martin County resident who went by Kim C., sharing her story in the report. “So if our water bills go up, I like many would have to have it disconnected because I could not afford it.”

Another resident, Ruth Crum, said, “Our bills are already around $81 or higher a month. We are on Social Security, we can’t afford higher water bills…If they raise our water bill, we will disconnect our city water.”

The PSC maintains that according to statutes, it cannot consider customers’ ability to pay when considering potential rate increases. 

Not Alone

Martin County is the most notorious of Kentucky’s rural water systems, but it is by no means alone in its difficulties. The PSC in March announced a new investigation into 12 water utilities struggling with water loss rates similar to Martin County’s. The most recent report for Kentucky from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that Kentucky’s drinking water infrastructure needs $8.2 billion in investment, an increase of 33 percent from 2013 to 2017. Ohio and West Virginia require $13.4 billion and $1.39 billion, respectively. 

“I am proud of Kentucky for how much effort has been put into the drinking water system,” said Colette Easter, Infrastructure Report Card Technical Chair with ASCE. “But we are dealing with systems that are old.” Easter said the reduced demand for water due to a declining population compounds the problem. 

Martin County attorney Cromer said her goal was for rural water districts like Martin County to think bigger. “People need to be rethinking how we’re designing water systems and how we’re looking at rates and how we’re funding infrastructure repairs,” she said. “Maybe we need to be looking at smaller, more resilient systems that are less dependent on running lines up and over mountains and are more community-based.”

Martin County residents plan to call their legislators, hold protests and continue speaking out to oppose further rate increases. 

The PSC has scheduled a hearing on October 22 on Martin County’s water loss and the efficacy of current rate structures.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.

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Access to Clean Water

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



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.

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