Q&A with the reporters:
Series Examines Sewer, Water Woes in Southern W.Va.
HOST INTRO: West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Molly Born and Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Caity Coyne have been working on a series of stories about water infrastructure issues in the southern coalfields. They’re both fellows with Report for America, an initiative that aims to strengthen local journalism. This week they’ll publish some of their stories along with the Lexington Herald-Leader. West Virginia Public Broadcasting news director Jesse Wright talked with them in studio about their work.
Jesse: Caity and Molly, thanks for coming in. What have you been working on this fall?
Molly: All three of us RFA fellows did stories this year about water. In our reporting, we talked to families who live without clean, reliable drinking water every day. Many of them go great lengths to get water. They collect rainwater in buckets, drive backroads to fill up jugs at natural springs flowing out of the mountain. For some, even taking a shower is a luxury.
Caity: Yeah, I talked to Tina Coleman and her husband, Chris. They both grew up in McDowell County. They lived in several different states for years but moved back in 2010 to McDowell, so her kids could experience life here, where she grew up. But every morning, when they turn on their faucet, they don’t know what color the water’s gonna be — or whether it’ll flow out at all. They live here with their kids and Tina’s mom. They bathe Tina’s grandson in bottled water.
Jesse: Clearly, these issues aren’t unique to the West Virginia and Kentucky coalfields. What sets these areas apart from, say, Flint, Michigan?
Molly: There are some especially dire situations here. It’s widely known that when the coal companies responsible for upkeep of these systems moved out of the region, the systems fell into disrepair. In places like O’Toole, in McDowell County, they’re especially bad. O’Toole has been under a boil-water advisory since 2002 and hasn’t filed an annual report since 2013.
Jesse: What else did you find out?
Molly: I talked to a family doctor who works in McDowell and Wyoming counties. Her name’s Joanna Bailey. She says patients bring up concerns about water almost every day. She worried about a lot of things — that families simply don’t consider water to be a staple of their diets, that they’re chronically dehydrated.
Molly: It’s interesting–she’s actually in the early stages of a research project to look at whether water concerns drive people to buy sugary drinks that can lead to health problems.
Jesse: This reporting didn’t just look at the problems. What kind of solutions did you find?
Caity: Since there’s not enough money to go around to fix these problems, –something else here– There’s also regionalization: There’s a project going on in McDowell County called the Elkhorn Creek Phase II water project. The idea is to get two small communities with aging infrastructure access — Northfork and Keystone– to clean, reliable drinking water. Some of these places have been on boil-water advisories for years.
Molly: Yeah, in Northfork, they’re so used to this that the local clinic has stored buckets of water they can use if the water goes out altogether. It can happen several times in a month, then not again for months. Even patients know to grab a bucket and use it to flush the toilet when they go to the bathroom at the clinic.
Jesse: Some of the aging infrastructure problems don’t just involve water. What did you find out about sewer systems?
Caity: In Stollings, a community in Logan County, a series of pipes pump sewage into the river. It was supposed to be a temporary system, but a fix set for 2020 is looking pretty unlikely because of the cost. These are called straight pipes, and they’re technically outlawed these days, but many communities in this region still use them. One resident told me the river backs up regularly, leaving her neighborhood smelling badly of sewage. Water pools along the road and railroad tracks.
Molly: And in Chattaroy, in Mingo County, there are these manholes back up when it rains and overflow into the street. There’s raw sewage, pieces of toilet paper and other waste that can get into the street. Families understandably are hesitant to let their kids play outside. It’s estimated that it would take $6 million to fix their public sewer system.
We talked to Megan Hatfield Montgomery. She’s a nurse who lives in Chattaroy with her husband and two kids. Several times a year, she might go days without being able to flush her toilets, take showers or wash clothes. They went 15 days like this in the spring. She says she had to spend thousands remodeling her bathroom.
Molly: That kind of sums up the project right there.
Jesse: Can you each tell us a little more about the Report for America experience? What was it like to work on a project of this size and scope?
Molly: I love southern West Virginia and enjoyed bringing voices from this part of the state to our listening audience elsewhere in West Virginia. Someone I talked to for this story told me he perceives a defeatist mentality in this part of the state — people think they’re always gonna be picked on, and that’s that is just part of living in southern WV. I hate that. Working on this series was very meaningful to me. It meant driving hours to some of the most rural parts of the state to hear people’s stories. But it was worth it. They’re worth it.
Jesse: Thanks, Molly. Thanks, Caity.
Listen to the “Stirring the Waters” podcast episode produced by Molly Born for WVPB’s “Inside Appalachia”
Caity Coyne and Molly Born are Galloway Fellows, part of our central Appalachia reporting project, which is made possible by the Galloway Family Foundation.
This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms, and funded with support from the Galloway Family Foundation.