EDITOR’S NOTE: The U.N. defines access to clean water as a basic human right. A team of emerging journalists with Report for America set out to explore how it is possible that so many people living in Central Appalachia feel they don’t have this right. This six-month reporting project is a partnership of The GroundTruth Project, the home of Report for America, and three local news organizations: The Lexington Herald-Leader in KY and West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Charleston Gazette-Mail in WV. This will be a series of written reports, a podcast episode in partnership with WVPB and a multimedia ‘special report’ on GroundTruth’s website including a short film documenting the team in the field on this reporting journey produced by GroundTruth Films. The project is made possible through a grant from the Galloway Family Foundation.
WILLIAMSON, West Virginia — For many families in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia, the absence of clean, reliable drinking water has become part of daily life.
They buy bottled water rather than drink what comes out of their taps. They collect rainwater in buckets, fearing there won’t be any running water at all the next day. They drive to natural springs on the sides of highways and backroads to fill up jugs for cooking and making coffee.
“It’s a basic human right to have clean water. And we are in the United States of America We are in Eastern KY, in Appalachia. We have beauty, we have nature, we have water. It is just the good water is not getting to the people,” said Barbiann Maynard, a water activist from the group Martin County Water Warriors.
Based on nearly six months of reporting and dozens of interviews with residents, water district officials and experts, this series explored an ongoing crisis in Central Appalachia that has left many families with poor access to clean, reliable drinking water. The reporting project, titled ‘Stirring the Waters,’ aims to bring attention to their plight, and to show that without action, access to affordable, clean drinking water in the region may well worsen before it improves. And in the end, the project hopes to stir a public debate on the scope of the problem and what is required of government and community leaders to find solutions to the crisis.
Among our key findings:
- Water districts in Central Appalachia struggle to perform routine maintenance, such as repairing leaking service lines, which leads to quality and reliability problems for customers. Many districts are understaffed and underfunded, leaving them to perform inadequate repairs that fail to address the long term problems of water loss and crumbling service lines.
- Some grant funding awarded to districts cannot be used to address districts’ most pressing issues. In Kentucky, the Abandoned Mine Lands program has awarded millions to a water district to extend service lines to a federal prison, rather than repairing the myriad of infrastructure problems that disrupt service and quality for customers.
- Some districts repeatedly violate the Safe Water Drinking Act by producing water that exceeds levels of certain chemical compounds that could pose a health risk to some customers, particularly infants, pregnant women and the elderly.
- Grant funding is the most sought after funding source for water projects, but experts in West Virginia say those pools of money are shrinking, and they have been for decades. Today, low-interest loans are being utilized more and more, but even when they are low-interest, the debt can handicap small water systems, some believe due to the way the West Virginia Public Service Commission regulates rate increases for those in the state.
- The only real source of revenue for community water systems is by collecting bills from customers. As more and more people leave West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — in the last 10 years, West Virginia is one of two states that have lost population nationally — water systems will have less and less revenue. Of 44 water systems in Southern West Virginia, only 13 had an increase in customers in 2017 compared to 2007.
- Rather than raising rates gradually, local politicians often pressure water boards to keep rates unchanged, leading to financial catastrophe in some cases. Some water districts in Kentucky have refused to raise rates even when pressured by the state Public Service Commission.
- In West Virginia, nine community water systems — all in Southern West Virginia — have been under boil water advisories for longer than five years. While the state is aware of these struggling systems, there are no records that indicate anything extra is being done to assist them. All but one of those systems have been serious violators with the EPA for the last 12 quarters. One of them, Coal Mountain Water, holds the highest number of violation points from the EPA in the entire state. According to records at the EPA, state inspections at these systems are still few and far between.
- The Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a West Virginia agency that acts as a clearinghouse for all infrastructure projects in the state, estimates that $17 billion is needed to correct water and sewage infrastructure and connect the entire population to central systems. That’s three times more than the state’s entire budget in 2018, and those costs are going to grow as more and more maintenance is needed.
- Less than half the structures in West Virginia are connected to central sewage systems. Hundreds of communities are serviced by septic systems that drain into straight pipes, which dump sewage directly into waterways, many of which are sources for drinking water. Some of these systems are falling apart under residents’ feet, creating health and safety concerns when the pipes backup and leave raw sewage pooling in yards, streets and even homes.
The complete reports of the partner news organizations can be found on their respective websites
Will Wright, Caity Coyne and Molly Born are Galloway Fellows, part of our central Appalachia reporting project, which is made possible by the Galloway Family Foundation.