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Olcott water project "closest" to becoming reality than ever before, but signatures needed

After years of failed attempts, a water line extension for residents in southern Kanawha County is gaining more traction than it ever has before.

The project would connect almost 200 residents in Olcott to West Virginia American Water’s centralized Kanawha Valley system. The community, which houses about 166 structures, currently receives water through wells on individuals’ property.

Some who live in the area, like Freddy Berry, say their water quality is fine, but wells often run dry, especially in the summer. This leaves families like Berry’s without running water, sometimes for months-long stretches.

“The water in our spring is great. We’re lucky, but we don’t have the quantity,” Berry said. “Sometimes, even if it’s not [dry], you could run out of water after taking one shower and doing some dishes.”

Others though, abstain from the water all together. Roxanna and Gary Eller have lived in Olcott for about 20 years.

“The water when we first moved here, it was still from the well and it wasn’t bad,” Roxanna said. “We don’t touch it now, though. We don’t even cook with it, and we haven’t for a long while.”

It smells like sewage, she said, sometimes raw sewage. The region, in addition to not having central water hookups, also doesn’t have central sewage hookups.

Gary Eller believes septic tanks in their neighborhood are leaking into the ground, contaminating his well water and potentially others, too.

“It used to be just iron, and you can take care of iron. But I got that water tested, so we know what’s in it now, and what’s in it is nothing we should be drinking,” Gary Eller said.

Because of the water quality, Roxanna Eller said they are tasked with trucking water home for anything other than bathing. Though they use the water to shower, Gary Eller said he spends as little time as possible in the water.

The Ellers said this is far from the first time promises have been made to connect them and their neighbors to centralized water service.

Brooks Crislip, head of business development at West Virginia American Water, said the company was involved in these previous attempts, but for various reasons, none came to fruition.

“They’ve tried, we’ve tried, but this is by far the closest we’ve come,” Crislip said.

To make the project reality, the Kanawha County Commission needs to get 145 households to sign up to be connected to the system. As of Thursday night, there were about 90 signed up.

Those who sign up now will have their $300 tap fee waived, County Commissioner Lance Wheeler told residents at a community meeting Thursday night. In order to move forward, the commission needs to get the 145 to sign up as soon as possible

“I want to stress this: we need your involvement in this. This is the closest we’ve been, and we’re at a breaking point,” Wheeler said. “In a valley like this, we know people are more likely to talk to their neighbors. So talk to your neighbors about this, get them to sign up if they haven’t, and we can make this happen.”

The entire project cost is estimated to be about $6.99 million, which commissioners said last week will be covered from an industrial development bond.

Potesta & Associates will head the project, which will consist of laying 13 miles of new piping and 27 fire hydrants in the Olcott Area and Sand Plant Road, starting near the Corridor G and Brounland Road intersection.

Crislip said this is the kind of project the company is excited to take on.

“It allows us to reach customers who are harder to reach,” Crislip said. “It’s a good opportunity to help people.”

This project is the latest of many that have seen American Water extend its Kanawha Valley reach. Two weeks ago, the company and the Town of Cedar Grove reached an agreement for acquisition, two months before that American Water completed its takeover of nearby East Bank’s water system and last fall Glasgow opted to sell off its water assets to the company as well.

Now, there is only one publicly owned water utility in Kanawha County: St. Albans Municipal Water.

Critics of American Water want to see public takeover of the company’s water services, an initiative that began after the 2015 water crisis, when the company failed to deactivate its intake facilities after the chemical spill into the Elk River. Crislip said he didn’t worry about the potential risks and stressors that could come with having one large utility in the region. The size gives them more flexibility and resources, he said.

“We’re just able to do things smaller, struggling utilities or regions can’t sometimes,” Crislip said. “We have funding and manpower — resources — that allow us to maintain and improve our infrastructure.”

There are challenges, though, no matter the resources available. The topography around Olcott — mountainous — makes the project more difficult. Water infrastructure projects are pricey in general, but even more so if they involve cutting through mountains, Crislip said.

Customers served by the extension, if it’s completed, will be American Water customers, and their rates would likely be set to match the rest of the Kanawha Valley’s rates, though it’s a bit early to be sure, Crislip said.

Residents in the region currently don’t pay a water bill, as they rely on their wells.

Melody McCormick, who lives in Olcott, said she is a bit worried to see what effect new expense will have for her and her neighbors, but she’s excited nonetheless.

“I’m just tickled we’re getting it out here,” McCormick said. “There’s so much need.”

McCormick owns her property, and the extension — plus installing hydrants and meters — is expected to increase the property value in the area while also decreasing property insurance costs, which are often higher in places without water services.

“That will be nice, and a long time coming,” McCormick said.

Deborah Baire-Morgan, another resident, said she’s been waiting 40 years for someone to follow through with the promise of centralized water. This time, she said, she hopes it actually comes to fruition.

“I know some places here — the end of the holler — the water’s really bad, and it’s been really bad. It doesn’t matter though, we out here get ignored or forgotten,” Baire-Morgan said. “We’re like second class citizens out here — it makes you feel like less when you look at something like water or broadband as a luxury when, for everyone else, it’s a need. We have the same needs.”

Sister Agatha Munyanyi pulls weeds before spreading mulch in front of the convent where she and three other sisters live on Virginia Street in Charleston on Friday. A nun with several degrees in the sciences, she is originally from Zimbabwe and has lived here since 2014.

Sprucing up for spring

More action, less talk, distinguish Biden's 100-day sprint
More action, less talk and something for the history books

WASHINGTON — The card tucked in President Joe Biden’s right jacket pocket must weigh a ton. You can see the weight of it on his face when he digs it out, squints and ever-so-slowly reads aloud the latest tally of COVID-19 dead.

Sometimes he’ll stumble on a digit — after all, flubs come with the man. But the message is always clear: The toll of the virus weighs on him constantly, a millstone that helps explain why the typically garrulous politician with the megawatt smile has often seemed downright dour.

For any new leader, a lingering pandemic that has killed more than a half million citizens would be plenty for a first 100 days. But it has been far from the sole preoccupation for the now 78-year-old Biden.

The oldest person ever elected president is tugging the United States in many new directions at once, right down to its literal foundations — the concrete of its neglected bridges — as well as the racial inequities and partisan poisons tearing at the civil society. Add to that list: a call for dramatic action to combat climate change.

He’s doing it without the abrasive noise of the last president or the charisma of the last two.

Biden’s spontaneity, once a hallmark and sometimes a headache, is rarely seen. Americans are seeing more action, less talk and something for the history books.

“This has been a really terrible year,” said Matt Delmont, who teaches civil rights history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “There’s so much. We want a new president to be a light forward. From that perspective, it makes sense that you want to get out of the box fast.”

Biden “sees the virtue of going bigger and bolder,” Delmont said. “It so strongly echoes FDR.”

Few would have bet Joe Biden would ever be uttered in the same breath as Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s too soon to know whether he deserves to be.

But the scope of what Biden wants to do would — if he succeeds — put him in the company of that New Deal president, whose burst of consequential actions set the 100-day marker by which all successors have been informally measured since.

It’s not all been smooth. Biden has struggled to change course on immigration practices he railed against in the campaign, drawing accusations from within his party that he’s “caved to the politics of fear.”

Yet in 100 days he has achieved a pandemic relief package of historic breadth and taken executive actions to counter the legacy and agitations of Donald Trump.

The U.S. has pivoted on the environment and established payments that could halve child poverty in a year. It has embraced international alliances Trump shunned. It has elevated the health insurance program Republicans tried for years to kill.

“He ran as the antithesis of Trump — empathetic, decent and experienced, and he is delivering,” said former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod. “He’s restored a sense of calm and equilibrium to a capital that lived on the jagged edge for four years of Trump.”

Gone are the out-of-control news conferences, the sudden firings, the impulsive policy declarations, the Twitter drama. Instead Americans are getting something more methodical. Like the index card in his pocket. It shows his schedule, the key virus statistics and war casualties.

Biden has appeared in public far less than his predecessors. That’s partly because of the pandemic but also because he wanted to occupy less of the American consciousness than did Trump, who spoke loudly but achieved almost nothing legislatively in his 100-day debut.

If there is a consistent through line to Biden’s term so far, it’s his attempt to respond to age-old racial inequalities, even in unexpected corners of public policy.

His massive infrastructure plan, for example, contains measures to address harms inflicted generations ago when governments built urban highways through Black neighborhoods.

“That’s something most Americans don’t think about if they don’t have a direct experience of it,” Delmont said. “People hear infrastructure and think it’s a race-neutral set of policies.”

But without understanding the fracturing of Black neighborhoods from the bulldozer or the heavy pandemic toll on minority communities, he said, “It’s hard to know what systemic racism looks like. These are civil rights issues. That’s where people want to see actions and resources.”

For the most part, Biden is actually doing more than he promised in his campaign. The election dealt him a hand that makes bigger things possible, thanks to majorities so thin in Congress that he needs Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tiebreaking votes in a 50-50 Senate.

But that power might not last. First-term presidents historically see their party lose big in the midterms and Republicans have shown no inclination to support his policies.

Even within his party, cohesion is not a given, with constant tension between centrists and the left. So far, Biden has managed to avoid a revolt from either faction. But liberals were from pleased when Biden balked at reversing Trump’s cuts in refugee admissions, as promised.

Biden was deprived of an orderly transition by Trump’s false claims of election fraud, which meant delays through the federal bureaucracy. It meant the Trump administration had done little to facilitate vaccine distribution before Biden took office, prompting his complaint about “the mess we inherited.”

Still, the Trump administration and Congress had made a massive investment in vaccine development. Trump also locked in early supplies for the U.S. while many other developed countries still face crucial shortages.

Biden’s success in surging vaccine distribution since then was a significant early achievement, helped by the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed into law within two months. No Republican lawmakers supported it.

To this point, Biden enjoys healthy poll numbers. Pew Research found an approval rating of 59% this month, in league with Obama and President George W. Bush and far better than Trump, 39% in April 2017.

Few people have tried longer to be president than Biden, who had formed a clear vision of the job after decades in Washington.

He talks more quietly now, moves a little slower and has lost weight. Mindful of his age, and his own life touched by immense tragedy, Biden knows tomorrow is never a given.

He speaks of all he wants to do, “God willing.”

“I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come,” he said at his only formal news conference. “I’m a great respecter of fate.”

The schedule on his card is full. The virus death tally inches up, more slowly now. He’s played golf once.

Local restaurant owner asks Chapmanville council to disallow food trucks

CHAPMANVILLE — Lonnie Berry, who owns the Tudor’s Biscuit World restaurant in Chapmanville, addressed the Chapmanville Town Council during its regular session April 13, where he asked council to prohibit out-of-town food vendors.

“I pay for a business license. I pay property tax, extremely high property tax,” Berry said. “I have 25 employees at Chapmanville. Those 25 employees at Chapmanville, I have to pay a state tax for them. Now, I’m a hometown boy, OK? Now, we’ve got some businesses in town. Their business is actually located in Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Hazard, Kentucky … not Lonnie. Lonnie buys his gas here, buys his groceries here. As a matter of fact, one person that I talked to told me that they were so busy operating their business in this town that they didn’t even go to Charleston. They said, ‘I buy 100% of my stuff in Chapmanville.’ Yes, they were upset whenever I mentioned the food trucks and the vending coming in.”

Berry named other food establishment owners in town whom he said are against the food vendors, including Eugenia Bryant of Tiger’s Ice Cream and Grill; Randi Joe White of Randi Joe’s Kitchen; Michael Baker of Aracoma Drug Co.; Josh Mullins of Giovanni’s; and Mina’s Mexican Grill.

Mayor Joel McNeely and councilwoman Robin Adams Mutters also noted that Tim Tomblin of Dairy Delight has spoken against the food trucks.

Berry owns Berry Enterprises, LLC, which operates other local businesses, including the Tudor’s Biscuit World at West Logan. A local preacher, Berry questioned the sanitary practices of mobile food vendors and said that all such practices are done correctly at his businesses.

“Chapmanville Tudor’s has a lot of money invested, OK?” Berry said. “It takes an enormous amount of money to be able to get this started, to be able to get it going, and to be able to run a business, and I buy more businesses and I go because I tell my employees all the time, ‘It’s not everywhere you can work for a preacher, where everything’s done right, everything’s done honest, and you’re treated fair.’ That’s why I buy more and more, so I can have more and more people the opportunity to work for the right people.”

Berry said he is representing his employees with his complaint. He said that if the food vendors continue to take money away from his business, it could result in employee position cuts. Berry also said he is acting as a representative for the other town businesses upset by the food trucks.

“If I spend and give you the tax money, I expect you to stand up for me,” Berry said. “Don’t let the trailer vending come in here. Don’t let the food trucks come in here, because everybody’s upset about it.”

Using a large satellite map of Chapmanville, councilman Ben DesRocher said a property where food trucks often set up is not actually within city limits.

“I would love to go forth with annexation, which would allow us to help curb that idea of food trucks coming in,” DesRocher said. “As long as this isn’t in town, they can come set up here, or here, actually, or a couple other places, and it’s going to be perfectly fine.”

Town recorder Terilyn Wilson said the first 10 feet of that property is within town limits, and the food trucks were actually set up on that portion recently. Town attorney Rob Kuenzel said if that is the case, then they need to pay the town’s vendor fee, along with B&O tax.

Kuenzel said a minor boundary adjustment could be made to annex the entire property into the town, if the owner would wish to do so.

Boone County man ‘digging in’ for the community

MADISON — Forest Dolin gazes over a plot of land where he has been working for several months, hoping to see the fruits of his labors when vegetables are harvested in a few months.

“I hope the community gets behind it and takes ownership of it,” he said on Thursday. “So far, I’ve gotten positive feedback on the project. Talking to people and spreading the word through social media has been a big part of it.”

Thanks to his efforts, “The Dig In Community Garden” was born.

Dolin, 32, is a lifelong resident of Boone County who is passionate about seeing it, and Southern West Virginia as whole, grow economically. He believes that concentrated, grassroots efforts are often overlooked but can have great, immediate impact.

“There often are the same groups of people who volunteer and you all get to know one another,” he said. “I’d like to see more young people become inspired. You just want everyone pulling in the same direction.”

The direction Dolin is pulling is upward, based on the progress of his latest grant-funded project.

“Dig In” is a small community group that completed a project with the West Virginia Community Development Hub of Charleston, which provided a community coach throughout the process.

“Afterwards I decided that I wanted to keep doing things,” he said. “I wanted to pursue a 501 [non-profit status] and the others had other things they were committed to. I started a small partnership with some community-minded organizations. An organization that doesn’t want to take credit for the work I do provided some funding for me and helped me get my non-profit status lined out.”

Dolin applied and received a “Try This West Virginia” mini-grant and was awarded $2,600, with $1,000 of that coming from the West Virginia University Extension Service.

Fencing to protect the community garden was the first order of business. The City of Madison donated the plot of land for use in the project, as long as planting was done above ground.

“I wasn’t necessarily wanting to plant in raised beds, but I’m thankful for the space and to the city for helping me out but I had to order this,” Dolin said, pointing to a truck-load of nutrient-rich soil that took $500 of his funding.

The plot, located less than a mile from the former Madison City Pool facility, once was the location of the structure that was Jan’s Tax Service for multiple decades.

“I understand why the city took that stance, but it made the project more expensive and if you’ve seen the cost of lumber lately, you know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I had zero budget for lumber at all.”

Dolin struck gold when he started looking for used lumber that could be crafted into raised beds.

Jim C. Hamer Co. of Route 17 came to the rescue with lumber that didn’t meet their quality control measures and was perfect for the project. They graciously donated the lumber.

Dolin said some of the planks weren’t perfectly straight and had plenty of knots and other imperfections, but he didn’t mind at all. He was grateful and thankful.

“I was very excited when they said they could help me,” he said. “They were great.”

He added, “From the first load, I got the first four beds made and placed. We got more wood and right now we have 10 beds. The grant was for 10 in-ground beds, but we improvised and it worked out.”

Outside of funding, Dolin said finding dedicated volunteers has been the biggest hurdle.

“Some folks have been wonderful,” he said. “Sometimes you count on others to do what they say they will do and it doesn’t exactly work out.”

Dolin said he had a specific initiative in mind.

“The thought process behind this is food security,” he said. “I want to do much larger things with this but people need to see that you are doing larger things before they get involved. When I tell people that I secured $3,000 for this thing, they can’t comprehend that it is possible to do that. Some people can’t believe that anything outside of their front door or their own church happens.”

Through the project, community members adopt an 8-by-4-foot raised bed and use it to grow any vegetables they choose. They must work the soil and maintain the beds themselves through harvest. Dolin said the process is meant to encourage agricultural growth in the community through hands-on experience and education.

“Six of the beds are accounted for already,” he said. “This will be the community’s garden and they can do with the vegetables what they want to.”

Dig In ran a Boone County Farmers Market in Madison last year and looks to do it again this summer.

“I’m hoping we’ll be up and running the first week of June.,” he said.

To adopt a bed, support the project or gain more information, reach out to Dolin through the Dig In- Boone County Facebook page or email him at forestdolin@frontier.com.

Visit trythiswv.com for more information on the organization.