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People stand in front of a doctor’s office on East Main Street, in Keystone, in 2018.

NORTHFORK For the first time in a decade, residents in Keystone can trust the water running through their home faucets.

Until recently, the liquid could flow out brown, yellow or red. It would stain bathtubs and clothing. For weeks at a time, the service would go out, leaving residents to rely on bottled or gathered water.

But now, with the completion of phase two of the McDowell County Public Service District’s Elkhorn Creek water project, residents in Keystone, neighboring Northfork and surrounding areas have access to consistent and reliable drinking water through service from the district.

“Everyone is excited,” said Vondalere Scott, Keystone’s mayor. “This helps everyone out a whole lot. It’s the first good thing I can remember here in a long time, and I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d ever see it happen in my time.”

The Public Service District now manages water service for nearly 400 residents in the towns of Keystone and Northfork and the communities of Upland, Kyle, Powhatan and Algoma. The $6.3-million project was covered entirely by grants, meaning residents will not foot the bill for any interest on a loan for the construction.

Last week, representatives from the communities and the groups responsible for the project — including the McDowell County Commission, Region 1 Planning and Development, the nonprofit Dig Deep, the federal Department of Agriculture and the Appalachian Regional Commission, among others — gathered at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Northfork for “a true celebration,” said McDowell district Chairman Jerry Stepp.

Phase two of the Elkhorn Creek project broke ground in winter 2020. Workers laid nearly 70,000 feet of water lines, extending to some customers who previously had no centralized water service and connecting to many — such as those in Keystone — who were underserved through insufficient systems.

A boil water advisory issued to Keystone Municipal Water in 2012 has never been lifted.

Since at least then, the town hasn’t had a certified water operator, so there was no water treatment. Water that came into homes traveled through a mishmash of dilapidated terra cotta, concrete and steel piping. The mains frequently cracked and leaked, allowing sediment to enter the system and travel through the pipes along with the water, landing in tubs and sinks.

Compliance records from the federal Environmental Protection Agency show Keystone has been out of compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act since at least 2010. Since 2012, the system has reported increased levels of lead and copper in the water. There have been unacceptable levels of other substances over the years as well, including arsenic, fecal coliform and iron, among others.

Keystone Municipal Water was deemed to have “significant deficiencies” for nearly every category tracked by EPA reports, including operation management, water distribution, storage, treatment and operator compliance.

The system has received eight formal enforcement actions from the agency in the last five years — the most of any water system in the state — and 486 informal enforcement actions.

Over the same time period, Northfork has received one formal enforcement action and 54 informal actions from the EPA. While there were fewer enforcement actions, the system’s compliance reports otherwise mirror those of Keystone: it holds the same significant deficiencies and increased levels of substances in the water.

Both water systems in Keystone and Northfork lose a majority of the water they produce through leaks underground before it gets to homes, according to historic annual reports filed with the state Public Service Commission. In Keystone, residents previously didn’t have meters installed at their homes. Rates were set at a base for every resident — $21.05 for every 3,400 gallons of water — and if someone didn’t pay, it was impossible to disconnect their water.

Mavis Brewster, district general manager, said that’s no longer the case. Each customer has a meter. Rates have increased for those now serviced by the system, but the increased cost comes with better, more reliable service, Brewster said.

“What we want people to know is they can trust it now, and if something is wrong — which will happen every once in a while — we will tell them,” Brewster said. “We’re not going to make them guess or worry. No one wants to do that. People in these towns are going to know what they’re drinking.”

A few years ago, Keystone leadership began stocking bottled water at the town hall for people to pick up when their water would go out. In 2019, Scott said the phone would ring continuously with requests.

“Now, the phone doesn’t ring anymore, and the [Public Service District] is in charge,” Scott said. “It’s a real weight lifted off us.”

Northfork and Keystone sit one after the other on U.S. 52 and along Elkhorn Creek. Hills covered in homes ascend on both sides. When the water goes out, residents on those hills are the first to lose service and the last to get it back, said Northfork Mayor Carol Sizemore.

“After so long, I think a lot of people here — they’ve been here their whole lives, their families have been here a long time — they just got used to it,” Sizemore said. “Isn’t that a silly thing to hear? Getting used to not having water? Clean water? I mean, it’s the most basic need. I don’t think other people [who are] unfamiliar can grasp what it’s like.”

Residents frequently pile jugs of water in their basements, kitchens or spare rooms in case of an emergency. Some communities organize water pickups for their neighbors at grocery stores or nearby fresh mountain springs.

Those are among many habits of necessity Sizemore said she’s happy to see her neighbors now able to break.

“We have the water now. We have it, and it’s all together and going to be maintained,” Sizemore said. “This is a right. It’s not a privilege. Clean water is a God-given right and I’m so happy to say our communities have it now.”

Things won’t be perfect, Sizemore noted. There will be times when the lines need to be flushed or temporary boil water advisories issued. Leaks will still occur, she said.

“But it’s absolutely going to be better than what we had before,” Sizemore said.

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Both the water systems in Keystone and Northfork were constructed in the early 1900s, when coal companies dominated the two communities. In the 1970s, when coal production slowed and corporations began to withdraw their resources, residents were left with no expertise to maintain or efficiently operate the complicated water systems.

In the decades since, as even more industry has pulled out of the region, the communities also are short on the money needed for improvements.

Keystone is buried under debt for bills owed to Appalachian Power. There are fewer than three businesses in operation within town limits. Tax revenues are not nearly enough to cover expenses, much less make infrastructure improvements.

Less than 30 years ago, the small town was bustling with business and flush with money. Now housing the city hall, one of the only buildings on the main drag of town used to hold the First National Bank of Keystone, which in the 1990s was “the most profitable community bank in the country,” according to an article in the newspaper American Banker.

Many families in Keystone kept their money in the bank. Some lost everything in 1999 when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation shut it down for fraudulent practices.

McDowell County Commissioner Cecil Patterson said he still sees a lot of potential in the community and those surrounding it, and he wishes others would, too.

“There are so many things Keystone could be, that all of McDowell County could be if we had the resources and the chance,” Patterson said. “What we’re seeing today as [the water project is completed] is a sign of hope. We need more of that to bring people here, to bring businesses here, and to keep them.”

There are many communities throughout the large, mountainous county that go without potable water for days, weeks or months. In O’Toole, a community of about 40 families in eastern McDowell County, residents were connected to clean water in 2019 for the first time in 16 years. Many residents in other areas — like those on Bradshaw Mountain and more rural regions — are still waiting.

“Those aren’t things businesses want to hear if you’re talking to them about coming here,” Patterson said.

It’s a difficult issue to overcome. The communities need to recruit and retain businesses and people to increase their tax base and pay for infrastructure upgrades. But businesses rarely are interested in locating where those amenities don’t already exist.

Now, with this phase of the Elkhorn Creek project completed and two more phases for other areas on the way, Patterson said he hopes to see things turn around.

“We’ve got the best people here. We say that all the time and it’s true. Now we need to bring the best resources, the best opportunities. They were here once, and they can be here again,” Patterson said.

Brewster said water infrastructure upgrades are integral to the county’s success.

The district operates more than a dozen water systems throughout McDowell County. Many were previously considered “intractable” by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, meaning they were “hopeless” for improvements.

Brewster said the district’s priority is to provide clean drinking water to as many people as possible. That opportunity, she said, is worth the complications that come with acquiring and upgrading dilapidated water systems.

“It feels kind of never-ending. There are always more people who need water, more systems that need help and more work to be done,” Brewster said. “If we don’t try to do it, well, who is? This is our home too, and we want to see it thrive. We need water — these basic needs – to do that.”

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The water challenges addressed by the completion of phase two of the Elkhorn Creek project are not unique to Keystone and Northfork. All but 13 of West Virginia’s 55 counties are ranked in the bottom third in the nation for the amount of time spent out of compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Despite the challenges, until recently the Legislature has remained largely silent on the state’s growing water and sewer infrastructure needs. The strategies undertaken focus on shifting funding structures for projects to grants and away from loans. Interest costs can cripple small systems that rely on a shrinking population base for revenue.

State funding for such projects is largely piecemeal, coming from a frequently complex combination of county commissions, municipalities and grants and loans from state agencies coupled with federal dollars.

During Monday’s special session, 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 current and future needs for water and sewage infrastructure, according to the state Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a clearinghouse responsible for approving and overseeing infrastructure projects in the state.

About 63% of structures in the state are connected to a water service and 47% to sewer service, according to the agency. To expand to all structures, upkeep the systems and upgrade systems that are currently struggling, the state would need more than $18 billion.

That’s nearly five times what the state’s estimated total revenue of $4.6 billion for 2023, according to the state budget.

There are currently 96 proposed water projects in the state that have been approved by the infrastructure council, costing a total of about $402.5 million. Just $58.4 million, or about 15% of the total, had been committed to the work as of 2020, the most recent year for which data were available.

Patterson said he understands the constraints — financial and otherwise — that hold back water projects. The terrain is often mountainous, making it more expensive and more complicated to run and extend lines.

Population decline makes it difficult to maintain tax bases that cover upkeep. West Virginia is not a wealthy state.

He hopes to see federal infrastructure efforts help others in the state — and outside it — see the importance of investing in this infrastructure. Then maybe, he said, funding will come easier.

“For decades, over a century, the people in McDowell and across [Southern West Virginia] have kept the lights on for everyone else. There have been a lot of sacrifices made,” Patterson said. “We will always take care of each other and ourselves [here]. This is our home, we love it, we’re proud of it, and it will stay that way. I hope the time is coming where others will see what we can do, and trust us enough to invest in it.”

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne@hdmediallc.com. Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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