MCDOWELL COUNTY — Retired teacher Lori Bishop has lived in Keystone all her life. She remembered when the coal mine tipple seen from her front porch in the once booming town ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“That was a different time, to be sure,” Bishop said. “A lot of things have changed, but some of those changes took too long to come, in my opinion.”
The water service at Bishop’s home and those surrounding it on a steep hillside overlooking Keystone has been spotty for most of the past two decades. Outdated terracotta pipes froze, then burst in winter, leading to water outages stretching as long as a month.
Her children, now grown, spent winter days gathering enough snow to melt for use in flushing the family’s toilets.
“It takes a lot of snow to flush a toilet – a lot of snow,” Bishop said, laughing, sitting at her dining room table.
Until last spring, Bishop, who is in her 70s and has back problems, would lug gallons of water from either mountain springs or the grocery store up and down the steep steps leading to her front porch.
“I can’t carry water anymore, and I’m not alone in this town,” Bishop said. “It’s a bunch of older people who live on the side of a hill.”
Bishop’s is one of roughly 400 McDowell County houses that recently have been connected to reliable, clean drinking water through construction completed by the McDowell County Public Service District and DigDeep, a nonprofit group.
Earlier this week, Bishop and other McDowell County residents recently greeted federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, sharing their water woes and learning of federal government plans that could bring relief.
Regan made the stop as part of his Journey to Justice Tour, which so far has included visits to Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Puerto Rico.
McDowell was flagged by staff as “high need” for water infrastructure, Regan said.
It was the first time many people in the Southern Coalfields had seen a federal eye turn toward problems they have faced daily.
Rosa Runyon, who has lived in her Premier home for 24 years, said the unreliable and potentially dangerous water nearly pushed her to leave. If it wasn’t for Eddie George, she might be gone already. George works for DigDeep, grew up with Runyon’s daughter and pushed to get Runyon and her neighbors connected to centralized water earlier this year.
Runyon’s husband and at least two of her neighbors who relied on the same dilapidated water system died of cancer a few years ago. Reports from throughout the region show the water has elevated levels of fecal matter, iron, manganese and arsenic. It’s difficult to prove a connection between illnesses and the water, but Runyon can’t shake the possibility.
Her husband worked in the coal mines, as did a number of her relatives. She is familiar with the chemicals used in the mining process and reports showing increased illness rates in those regularly exposed. She knows those chemicals have seeped into the ground around her home and throughout the county.
“Could that be related?” she said to Regan as he sat on a couch in her living room, where her husband’s hospital bed was stationed when he died.
Regan didn’t have a direct answer — people rarely do when it comes to the potential health consequences of contaminated water in Appalachia or elsewhere — but he listened to her story.
“I think it’s important that people — no matter their race, no matter their income, no matter their geographic location — feel heard when they’re struggling with such overwhelming issues,” Regan said. “I want them to know that what they’re facing, what they’ve faced is unacceptable, that we as a country must do better. Water, without any doubt, is a human right, and we are failing to provide that in pockets across this country.”
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The struggles of living without clean water in the Coalfields are not new. Residents have dealt with the problem for decades and grown resilient in unexpected and unfair ways as a result.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, coal companies began to pull resources out of McDowell County and the surrounding region. Executives sold off whatever assets they could as the market waned. Water infrastructure and city services that once were operated by experts employed by the coal companies were left in the hands of those who could not afford or did not want to leave.
In 1989, Frankie Rutherford decided she’d had enough. A single mother to a 2-year-old, Rutherford began writing representatives.
Contaminated by manganese and other chemicals seeping into the dilapidated piping in Caretta, the water ran black when Rutherford prepared a bath for her daughter. Anything submerged more than an inch, she said, would disappear in the muck.
Frustrated by officials’ lack of response, Rutherford hired a contractor to drill a new well. When the morning came for work to begin, she sent the worker home. She’d faced a realization overnight.
“I did not want to have a solution for myself alone until one could be found for all the children,” Rutherford later told researcher Gary O’Dell.
Rutherford, who died in 2011 at 62, took to activism and organized mostly women from across the county to demand better from the privately owned McDowell Water Company, which fielded hundreds of customer complaints but continued to collect customer money. The group’s demands yielded a state investigation and incarceration for the company owner.
Less than a year later — after near-daily court hearings, political meetings and protests — the McDowell County Public Service District was formed as a publicly owned water utility with Rutherford at its helm.
More than 30 years later, Mavis Brewster serves as director of the utility, which has made quick work over the last six years taking over and improving water service for thousands of McDowell people served by unviable systems.
Now, like in Rutherford’s time, things are moving forward due to residents working together.
In 2018, Brewster said it was difficult to get conversations started about water infrastructure.
“It’s not something you can see, like roads. It’s a complicated issue, and, unfortunately, the conversations surrounding water infrastructure can be kind of boring,” Brewster said in 2018. “It’s disappointing because we do have really big needs. People listen sometimes, then they go along and forget what’s happening down here.”
Today, though, things seem different.
“People seem interested. We get visitors pretty regularly,” Brewster said. “There’s more money available now, I believe, than there ever has been before, at least as long as I’ve been doing this work.”
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Meeting at Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, Brewster and a few of her employees sat with about 40 other people at a luncheon with Regan, all discussing the need for better water infrastructure in the Coalfields. Drinking tea made from water collected from hydropanels on the food bank property, Regan listened to local experts.
Officials need to think outside the box in search of solutions, said Bob McKinney, manager for DigDeep’s Appalachian Water Project.
The hydropanels used by the food bank are one-of-a-kind in the region. Powered by solar panels, the devices pull moisture from the air and into water tanks. The food bank bottles its own water for distribution.
It isn’t easy to replicate the system everywhere. Mountains block sunshine. The weather is less predictable in Appalachia than in dry, flat regions such as the Navajo Nation stretching across the corners of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, where hydropanel systems have worked well. No matter the system, upkeep and maintenance are persistent concerns.
“No matter what we put in, well, someone has to be there to take care of it,” McKinney said.
Qualified water system operators are rare amid retirements. The jobs pay little, and licenses and certifications cost thousands of dollars.
For more than a decade, Keystone went without a water operator leaving residents to live under a boil water advisory. The same is the case in dozens of Coalfields communities, where laymen regularly oversee operations and treat water by throwing in bleach once or twice a month. There isn’t enough money to regularly test for contaminants. Results are poor in intermittent state inspections, and resources to fix the problems are scarce.
Still, more money and federal interest make Brewster feel “hopeful.”
“I do mean it when I say, today, things feel different than they have in the past,” Brewster said. “It feels like we’ve got this momentum going for real, permanent changes and the partnerships that we need to make that happen are taking form. I can’t wait to see what we can make happen.”
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Regan said water problems are not unique to Appalachia, but they are growing here.
Because of failing water systems, the number of structures in the state connected to water service decreased from 2018 to 2020, according to the state Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council.
The council estimates West Virginia needs more than $18 billion to expand water and sewage services to all structures and to maintain and upgrade systems.
That’s nearly five times the state’s projected total revenue of $4.6 billion for 2023.
From 2018 to 2020, the need rose by more than $1 billion.
Regan said he’s also optimistic new pools of money can help offset the consequences of continuously failing infrastructure. Through funds in packages like the bipartisan infrastructure act, he said, he thinks the federal government can better support local efforts to improve services.
That support, though, must be a partnership led by locals who are heard when they say what they need.
“We cannot prescribe the solutions to these problems,” Regan said. “We need to rely on the people who know them best, who are the experts in their own experiences, to tell us what they need. Our responsibility should be to facilitate that.”
The state and localities need to work in step with each other, Regan said, all the way up to the federal government.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a $250 million supplemental appropriation to match funds for water and sewer infrastructure projects across the state. That amount accounts for just 1.3% of the state’s estimated need.
Gov. Jim Justice, a vocal advocate for road projects, has remained mum on the state’s struggles to obtain clean drinking water. His silence continued even as 36 of the state’s counties ranked among the worst third in the nation for health-based violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 2019.
In his State of the State address that year, the governor suggested flooding McDowell County and turning it into a lake.
“I could not believe what I heard when he said that,” said Donna Dickerson, a resident of Kyle, McDowell County. “Why do away with us down here? They already like to pretend we don’t exist, that we don’t deserve the help and resources they give to others.”
Among residents who’ve gained access to clean and centralized water, Dickerson said she was hesitant when the Public Service District and DigDeep approached her. She’d heard promises about clean water before from people who said they had power. The promises went unfulfilled.
“It has felt like politicians, people making these promises, like they wanted to keep us down, keep us in the dark,” Dickerson said. “It’s felt like us living down here are an inconvenience for them. But this is our home. Our families built this place. People in the cities, they don’t know what it feels like to be forgotten like that.”
Runyon also was skeptical. It felt different, though, when George — whom she’d known for decades — was the one making the promise.
“I trusted him,” Runyon said. “I couldn’t say that to those who promised before.”
Regan said he was “impressed” by the resilience of people in Appalachian communities like Keystone and Premier, where residents have been forced to stand up for themselves or be left behind. Residents said their resilience is a testament to how the state has failed some of its most vulnerable communities.
“I shouldn’t have had to, but I got used to living the way I did. I got used to going without this basic need,” Bishop said. “It shouldn’t have had to be this way, and I’ve spent years waiting and waiting and waiting. Well, help finally came when I really didn’t think it would.”
Runyon said she wants to see her children and other relatives return to the region.
“With the water coming in that’s the biggest blessing there ever was,” Runyon said. “Now this house is paid off and all I really need is a good septic tank.”
“Well, we’ll get to work on that next,” George told her, smiling. “You know we’re here to help with anything.”