By Sarah Plummer
The chemical spill in January that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians around Charleston has brought national attention to issues of water safety. But many rural West Virginians outside the reach of the spill have been living without tap water for drinking for months — or even years.
The residents of Bud, a small town in southern Wyoming County, haven’t been able to drink from the tap for six months, ever since the owner of Alpoca Water Works — the small water plant that had served the community for decades — died.
When that happened, the plant shut its doors and the water situation “deteriorated rapidly,” said state Sen. Daniel Hall, a Democrat who represents the affected area.
“It is a terrible situation that should not have happened and those people fell through the cracks. It is taking time to get resolved, but it will be,” Hall said.
Regional water authorities say they don’t know when Bud’s 430 residents can expect to drink tap water again.
“There are still a lot of hoops we have to jump through. We have to have a bond closing and go through the steps to purchase the system,” said William Baisden, general manager for Logan County Public Service District, which provides water to rural areas of Logan county. The county is in the process of taking over the system in conjunction with East Wyoming.
Lack of money, crumbling infrastructure and the deteriorating quality of well water have left scores of rural residents in southern West Virginia without tap water that is safe to drink or bathe in.
Mavis Brewster of the McDowell Public Service District, which provides water to 3,000 customers, said there are scores of small municipalities with water systems that have in use since the coal boom of the 1930s. Those systems are disintegrating, with old pipes breaking frequently. Residents often are under water-boil notices or experience water outages.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people in McDowell County itself do not have access to clean tap water or suitable well water, she said.
“I’m 54 years old and, as long as I can remember, people have collected water from a spring or old mine source up on U.S. Route 54 in Maybeury. Any time of day you can see trucks loading their tanks,” she said. Road-side collection sites are often a single PVC pipe jutting out from an embankment.
The McDowell PSD just completed a $3.5 million federally funded project to bring water to 500 customers who had never had tap water on Bradshaw Mountain, Brewster said. Residents there had been paying $30 per 1,000 gallons of water hauled to their homes. A new water treatment plant is set for the towns of Northfolk and Elkhorn and will serve about 850 customers, Brewster said.
Summers County Commissioner Jack David Woodrum said some residents in his southern county face poor water quality or well contamination from septic systems that empty near or into water systems. Many have water filtrations systems that are costly and must be replaced on a yearly basis because the water corrodes them so badly.
Several projects in Summers County are on hold until funds can be secured.
“The biggest problem we face regarding water is that infrastructure money is slated to be cut in half. The 2015 state budget will cut funds from $40 million to $20 million,” Woodrum said.
“Nine counties in the Kanawha Valley experienced a terrible thing to be without clean water,” he said, referring to the Charleston-area water crisis. “But it is an experience that rural West Virginians experience every day.”
David Cole, executive director of Regional I Planning and Development Council, which serves the six southernmost counties including McDowell, estimates it would cost more than $250 million to meet top priority water and sewage needs in the region. But grant funding is even harder to secure for many of these small, rural towns where populations are aging and dwindling, Cole said.
McDowell County Commissioner Gordon Lambert said the he felt sorry for people in the Charleston area after toxins from a chemical plant last month leaked into the Elk River and then into the city’s water supply. That left 300,000 people without clean drinking water for a week or more.
“I’m sure it was terrible up there,” Lambert said. “But some people here have faced not having water for numerous years.”