O’TOOLE — Flats of bottled water and dozens of plastic jugs filled with water from a nearby spring crowd three rooms in Janet Long’s home in O’Toole, a small hollow wedged among mountainsides and the Tug Fork River on the eastern side of McDowell County.
A little more than 10 years ago, Long crossed the Virginia state line to settle in O’Toole. Now 70 years old, she has avoided drinking water from her faucets and has kept stocked up on other water sources since she arrived. It was one of the first tips she got from her new neighbors.
“I keep it just in case,” Long said of the bottled water. “You never know when the water isn’t going to work, and when it does go off, you don’t know how long it’ll be till it comes back. ... It’s stressful, it’s depressing. You don’t realize how much water you need every day until you don’t have it.”
Long’s piped-in water comes from the O’Toole Water Association. Through her decade on the system, she’s experienced a lot: discolored water that smells like “something between rotten eggs and death,” as one neighbor put it; days, sometimes weeks, with no water service at all; and leaves, dirt, bugs, trash and clumps of animal hair that work their way through the pipes when the water is flowing.
For almost 17 years — 6,177 days to be exact — it hasn’t been safe for O’Toole residents to drink water from their faucets without boiling it first. A boil-water advisory issued for the system in May of 2002 has never been lifted. It probably never will be.
But with the help of a nonprofit group, the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, the last 17 families still being served by the O’Toole Water Association may soon transfer to the McDowell County Public Service District.
That means Long may soon be able to fill a glass with clear, odorless water from her kitchen faucet.
“These people coming in, they’re a blessing for us if we can get that money raised,” she said. “We get promised a lot around here, but I think this time it might work. We might see something change.”
Several households in O’Toole already decided last year to join the McDowell PSD. The benefits may be obvious, but the costs are big, especially for those on a fixed income like many of the families still on the O’Toole system, according to Pam St. Clair, who has lived in O’Toole for the last six years.
Mavis Brewster, head of the McDowell PSD, estimates it will cost each household at least $500 to connect to the PSD, including a $300 tap fee, a $50 deposit and various other expenses for pipes and valves.
If Long had to pay $500 today, she said, she’d have to go months without some of her medications, and cut back drastically on food and electricity.
“We’re poor people down here, and we’ve got a lot of needs,” St. Clair said. “We only have so much to live off of, most of us, and when it comes to money, we’re just looking at how we can stretch to the end of each month. We don’t have savings, we don’t have money to waste.”
The Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues and sustainability in West Virginia, has stepped in to help the residents in O’Toole raise money to get off the O’Toole Water Association and onto the PSD.
“No human being should ever be subjected to drinking this type of water, and if the barrier to entry here is cost, we’re going to overcome it, and we’re going to do it together,” said Paul Corbit Brown, the foundation’s president, at a community meeting last week. “The way things are here — there are families in crisis, and that’s what we focus on. It’s part of what we do, and we’re going to help you all as much as we can to correct this.”
For the last few months, Keeper of the Mountains has brought bottled water for residents to drink and cook with. Before that, neighbors organized their own water drives, taking empty barrels and jugs about a mile up the road to a mountain spring.
So far, 30 donors have raised nearly a quarter of the $7,100 goal for the foundation. Brewster said the quicker the money is raised, the sooner people can get on the McDowell PSD system and avoid what she says is the inevitable, final collapse of the O’Toole Water Association.
“It’s not a matter of if those pumps stop working at O’Toole, it’s a matter of when,” Brewster said. “Right now, they’re only operating because [American Electric Power] is letting them keep their power, but that’s not going to last forever, and I don’t think it’ll last much longer.”
The O’Toole system owes thousands of dollars to AEP, which could turn off power to the water treatment plant at any time — one of the many issues facing the beleaguered water system.
‘An honor system’
Like many Southern West Virginia water systems, O’Toole Water Association operated as a coal camp utility when its lines were laid in the mid-20th century. There’s been little maintenance to the system since, and customers say mismanagement in recent years has exacerbated problems they’ve been dealing with for almost two decades.
The water association has not employed a certified operator since at least 2002, when the original boil-water advisory was issued for the system.
The association hasn’t filed an annual report to the state Public Service Commission, the agency responsible for regulating all West Virginia utilities, since 2013. The reports that are filed are sparse, with several pages left blank and operational questions unanswered. The Secretary of State’s office revoked the association’s business license in 2010.
Despite all this, the O’Toole Water Association still collects, or tries to collect, money from customers.
“It’s been an honor system. You use the water, you owe it, you pay it. We’ve never sent out bills,” said Crystal Coe, the association’s secretary.
Paper bills, she said, are never the way O’Toole has done business. Customers are told how much they owe, then they write a check or a money order and bring it to Coe’s home.
“No receipt, no nothing,” said Carol Thompson, Coe’s neighbor. “We don’t know how much water we use and we don’t know where our money goes. It doesn’t seem like it’s gone to fixing anything around here. That’s not how a business works.”
O’Toole residents say they’ve been trying for several years to get Coe and other officers of the water association to explain why service is so unreliable. For years, they’ve gotten the same answer.
“They tell us, over and over, the water would work, it’d be good water, if we paid our bills,” St. Clair said.
O’Toole’s water system is unmetered and doesn’t have shut-off valves, meaning residents who fail to pay won’t lose water service because it’s impossible to single out individual homes.
The “honor system” Coe mentioned worked to some degree for years. The water wasn’t great (there was still no certified operator to treat it), but it was on and could be used for bathing or laundry, and people paid for it.
Then, customers started seeing more days with no water. They say they were never notified when the water wasn’t on. “You get up in the morning, you try to turn on your shower, and you know it’s out. Then, you just wait. You call to ask what’s going on, you get ignored, and you wait,” St. Clair said.
But they say they were still asked to pay the same.
Last year, residents said, the water association tried to raise its rates, telling customers they owed more money.
Rate increases for water utilities must be approved by the PSC, and in most cases will not be granted without recent annual reports filed. According to the PSC, the only cases and orders on record for O’Toole in the last 10 years are about penalties for the water association’s failure to file annual reports.
As they watched board members ask for more money while dodging questions, residents grew frustrated. One by one, many did stop paying their bills.
“Why would we keep paying for water we don’t get? It’s not fair at all,” Thompson said.
‘This is all toxic’
Long paid her bill until February. She’s grown too frustrated with the constant outages, and when the water is on, she said, it’s worse than it used to be.
“Poison,” Long said. “It’s almost like poison, but you don’t know what the risks of it are.”
In 2017, she said, she was hospitalized with sepsis and almost died. She believes the quality of her water contributed to the infection, and that worry hangs over her head constantly. She said she’s had rashes and cysts, and in the shower, she feels like the water seeps into her skin, like it’s infecting her.
“You’re afraid you’re going to catch something, but you don’t know what it’ll be,” she said.
After showers, the stench of the water sticks to skin.
“We all buy bulk lotion, and you have no choice but to lather yourself with it — lots of it — when you get out so you don’t smell,” St. Clair said.
St. Clair has stomach and kidney cancer, and her husband died of lung cancer about two years ago. The women said at least eight people in the small community have been diagnosed with or died from cancer in the last few years, and others have suffered from MRSA and staph infections. They can’t blame it all on the water, but they say it certainly hasn’t helped.
Samantha Sargent, 22, lives next door to Thompson. She said the water used to make her sick — even the smell would make her throw up. She partly blames it for her eating disorder and her miscarriage.
Her 19-year-old sister is due to have a baby boy in August. Sargent worries about her sister’s health, and her soon-to-be nephew’s.
“This is all toxic, and it’s not something that should be around any kids or anyone who is pregnant,” Sargent said. “That bacteria, whatever is in that water, it’s not safe.”
Sargent sometimes climbs to the top of the O’Toole water tank, which is uncovered, letting leaves and sticks and animals in. Once, Sargent said, she saw a dead animal floating in the top. This wasn’t shocking to her — people in the community have talked for years about a deer carcass that allegedly got stuck in there once.
On Thursday, Coe stood on her porch, just a few houses away from where St. Clair and Thompson live. She said she is now connected to the McDowell PSD. Neighbors said several O’Toole Water Association board members were among the first to connect to the McDowell PSD last year, including its president, James Day, and its vice president, James Calloway. The only contact information available for the water association or its officers was an out-of-service phone number listed on its PSC profile.
Coe said the water association used to test the water monthly, but stopped because there wasn’t any money.
The O’Toole Water Association’s last annual report with the PSC indicated the association paid for testing in 2012, but there are no details about the testing.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there has not been a formal inspection performed for O’Toole since 1995. In 2014, the state performed a sanitary survey which yielded “significant deficiencies” — the lowest score possible — for every category. The system accrued 427 violation points from the EPA over the last five years — the fourth highest amount for any water system in the state.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources classifies O’Toole as an “intractable” system, meaning it’s unyielding to violations and improvements are “hopeless.”
The association has also operated under a boil-water advisory longer than any other water system in the state, a fact that several residents were not even aware of until 2014 — 12 years after it was originally issued.
“My husband, before he died, he overheard it from someone and we looked it up,” St. Clair said. “We never received anything in the mail, at our house. We never knew. We didn’t drink the water anyway, but they never told us.”
‘We’re humans too’
While the problems facing O’Toole may seem extraordinary, Brewster, with the McDowell County PSD, said they’re really not.
“There are communities throughout Southern West Virginia, especially here in McDowell, dealing with similar situations,” she said.
The McDowell PSD has tried to bring in those systems when it can and offer help when it can’t, she said. The PSD now runs 17 water systems in McDowell County.
“We’re spending, roughly, $600 per a hookup. While they’re only paying $300 to us for that hookup, we run the risk of never recouping those costs, of never making our money back if they don’t make payments,” Brewster said. “We want to do everything we can to get as many people as possible clean water — that’s a basic right — but we need assurance that, afterward, they can make their monthly bills.”
St. Clair and other O’Toole residents say that’s not an issue — they can’t afford the lump sum due for connection fees, but they aren’t paying monthly bills now because of their experiences with the water association.
“We pay for the things we use, but we will not be walked over,” St. Clair said. “We’re humans, too, we deserve clean water and we deserve to be respected by those whose job it is to provide it. What makes us less than anyone else?”