In an interview on Fox and Friends last Friday, Gov. Jim Justice told hosts, “If you want pristine air, if you want pristine water, come to West Virginia.” A study released this week contradicts that, though, and reaffirms what many in the state already know: Thousands of people here live every day without clean, potable drinking water — and they have for years.
The nationwide study, “Watered Down Justice,” used federal data to compile violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act at the county level from 2016-2019. In West Virginia, 36 counties ranked among the worst-third in the nation over that three-year period for SDWA health-based violations, which are violations that threaten the health of the consumer.
All but 13 West Virginia counties also ranked among the worst-third in the nation for time out-of-compliance of the SDWA, meaning systems in these counties do not correct issues for extended periods of time. Some water systems operate for years as significant violators of the SDWA, and regularly fail to alert their customers to the issues, per the study.
For most speaking at a Tuesday news conference, the study, which was released by several national environmental groups, didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.
They remember well the 2014 water crisis, when thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into the Elk River and left 300,000 people in nine counties around the Kanawha Valley without safe drinking water. The study acknowledges, though, that this was not an acute, one-time incident, and almost no one in the state is left untouched by the potential consequences of unclean, unreliable water.
“This information comes as no surprise to those that have lived here a long time. It really doesn’t,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, at a Tuesday press conference. “[The water crisis] was an acute spill, but West Virginians know there’s been a slow drip contaminating the water in West Virginia for years.”
In West Virginia, SDWA violations occur from contaminants that can enter water sources from chemical plants, activities like coal mining and other sources, as well as from dilapidated infrastructure and issues with the water treatment process.
Violations of the SDWA come in three forms: monitor and reporting violations, which are when water systems fail to test their water and report it to the appropriate state and federal agencies; public notice violations, which are when systems do not notify consumers of issues with their water sources; and health-based violations, characterized as the most serious, as they can pose an immediate threat to anyone drinking the water.
“In West Virginia, ‘water crisis’ has become the norm,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Tuesday. “This has got to turn around because West Virginians deserve better.”
The study found that, overwhelmingly, low-income communities and communities with more people of color regularly rely on community water systems that operate in violation of the SDWA, and these people live with the violations for longer periods of time than communities comprised of affluent and white people.
“It seems as though that it’s just a recurring thing that communities of color are disproportionately affected by poor water quality and inaction,” said Pam Nixon, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety.
Even as the state faced national attention for the 2014 water crisis, and as water systems continue to age with little attention to upgrades or corrections that could improve water quality for thousands, those at Tuesday’s event were indignant about inaction at the state’s legislative and executive levels.
Pushkin was voted into the West Virginia legislature in 2014. His time since — all after the chemical spill — has been colored by persistent attempts to roll back water quality standards that arose from the crisis, all in the name of incentivizing business in West Virginia, he said.
“We’re fed this false narrative that’s going to be good for business — that business needs [fewer regulations] to thrive,” Pushkin said. “Basically, this narrative we’re being fed is a lie.”
Speakers Tuesday shared what seemed to be a general frustration with a lack of progress and focus from the people who could arguably do the most — namely Justice and the Legislature — on West Virginia’s growing water challenges.
“When we talk about infrastructure at the Legislature, you hear about roads … and you hear very little about our water infrastructure,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “Does it matter if we have roads if we don’t have water? I don’t think it does.”
Water, Hansen conceded, is an expensive issue to fix, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of compliance at all levels of government in the state. That should not mean it shouldn’t be prioritized, though, he said.
“It’s something we have to tackle, as soon as we can, or the cycle will continue,” he said.
Inaction, too, makes the price of fixing West Virginia’s water infrastructure rise: in 2017, the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council estimated that $4 billion is needed to rehabilitate West Virginia’s aging water systems. As these systems get older, and as less work is done, that number will continue to rise as more maintenance is needed.
The study included a number of recommendations for states to take that would improve that quality of water for residents: support disproportionately affected communities, prevent water contamination, address crises to prevent exposure, invest in water infrastructure, strengthen small water systems and enforce the law.
Most of these recommendations, though, rely on state departments — the Department of Health and Human Resources, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Service Commission, the Legislature and the Governor’s Office, to name a few — changing their practices for the betterment of West Virginia citizens.
Examples abound where practices — whether in violation of laws on the books or just indifference — have affected West Virginians. In O’Toole, a community that was under a boil-water advisory for more than 16 years, several residents confirmed they’d never been notified about the state of their water. There are systems operating consistently out-of-compliance with SDWA standards, but are not offered additional resources or testing by the state offices. Source water protection plans, which are supposed to identify potential hazards to water sources and come up with plans for an emergency, are not funded and are regularly not provided by water systems.
At the legislative level, as Pushkin said, water quality standards have been chipped away over the years, and the few pieces of legislation that could have given avenues to invest in water infrastructure either never made it to a vote or were never implemented after passage.
“People who really care about this need to show up [the the Legislature] and tell [lawmakers] what they think, and that they care,” Pushkin said. “The people in this building don’t always prioritize the health of their citizens. We need to make that change.”