At one point, the public drinking water pulled from an underground aquifer in the western slice of Fayette County was so clean that board members at the Page-Kincaid Public Service District wanted to bottle and sell it.
Then, last July, something changed.
High traces of iron, manganese and aluminum started showing up on water quality tests. Residents started seeing their laundry dyed shades of red and pink due to the water. When it came out of faucets in kitchens or bathrooms, some reported a strange smell, or that it ran “milky” or “rusty,” according to complaints.
Connie Smith gave her 2-year-old grandson a bath last August, and when she lifted him out of the tub, she found his skin covered in a red, bumpy rash.
“It’s scary. My other grandchildren are staying here, too. We tell them to take quick, quick showers. We take quick showers, and we don’t drink [the water] at all,” Smith said. “We buy water for everything, we won’t touch it.”
It’s unclear what happened to the water source last year.
A federal lawsuit filed by the Fayette County Commission alleges that blasting at a nearby underground mining complex cracked the casings of the PSD’s two deep wells, opening them up to contaminants.
But Mike Callaghan, the lawyer representing the Fayette County Commission, said expert engineers hired by him and those at Seminole — the company named in the suit, and that filed for bankruptcy last year and is now a subsidiary of Murray Energy — said it was “very, very, very unlikely” that any mining activity at that complex would have affected Page-Kincaid’s wells.
Now Callaghan and a team of engineers are looking at historic mining operations in the area to figure out where the contaminants originated from, and who is responsible for dirtying the water.
“It’s an open case, and we want to find the company so the people living there will have someone to pay for the damages,” Callaghan said. “We want to get that reclamation money for them.”
Who is to blame didn’t matter much to those living in the area, though.
“We just want water we can drink,” Smith said.
John David, secretary at the Page-Kincaid PSD, said he and others in charge began working on what they could do to restore clean water to people’s homes as soon as they noticed how widespread the consequences were.
Through negotiations with the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the PSD was able to access a portion of funds that was originally slated for a separate project to upgrade the system. The $248,000 grant came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was used to buy an emergency water filter for the system after the old one failed from processing so much iron.
The PSD now plans to install two more water filters as part of a $3.3 million rehabilitation project, which will be financed through $2.2 million in loans and about $1 million in grants.
After the new filter went online in August, clean water began flowing through the system’s pipes again, David said. They won’t feel secure, though, until the last two are installed, which can’t happen until the Public Service Commission approves a certificate of necessity and convenience for the system to raise rates to help pay for the rehabilitation project.
“The water is contaminated by iron. We had to fix it, so we did,” David said. “We did, and we continue to do, what needs to be done. … Now, with the commotion that’s going on, the installation for filters two and three is being delayed. It’s like we’re being held hostage.”
That “commotion” is West Virginia American Water’s petition to intervene in the PSD’s certificate case, with interest to take the system over. David said the company isn’t wanted, that the water system should stay in local hands, under local control, but not everyone in Page thinks so.
Customers are angry with the PSD. It seems the iron contamination opened a floodgate. A petition signed by more than 400 residents called for an investigation into the PSD’s operations, and complaints went further than the poor water quality that started last year. They allege an entire mishandling of the system, from billing to water treatment, and several ask for WVAW, by name, to take over the system.
For David, WVAW’s bid to intervene in the case was “astounding.”
“This permits the company to make a profit for outside shareholders and executives on taxpayer money that otherwise could be used in the local community,” David said in a testimony to the Public Service Commission. “[If WVAW did take over] local people will lose control, office access and community pride … and West Virginia will continue to be a colony of out-of-state interests when, in fact, people here have the capability and capacity to do the job just as well or better.”
As far as capability and capacity, Page-Kincaid is better off financially than several other Southern West Virginia public service districts of comparable size. Per annual reports, the PSD brings in revenue each year, even with $800,000 in debt from previous loans.
Worries arise, though, when thinking of future capabilities — and potential problems. The proposed rehabilitation project will mean a 10 percent rate increase for customers, and until it’s completed, the system will continue to suffer from persistent leaks. It holds a water loss rate of 65 percent — one of the highest in the state — and as its pipes continue to age, problems will continue to rise.
Laura Martin, director of communications for WVAW, said the company is committed to helping those in the Page area find a long-term, permanent solution to the struggles.
“We’re just trying to talk our neighboring system into not making a bad investment. We may not be successful, but we want to make sure we put all the options out there,” Martin said.
The PSD has not responded to WVAW’s request for information on the system, so it’s unclear what work would need to be done to connect Page-Kincaid’s customers to WVAW’s lines. If there were a takeover, though, the aquifer and water treatment plants would be taken offline, meaning upgrades and rehabilitation work wouldn’t be necessary.
This, it seems, is what residents want.
“We don’t care who gives us the water, as long as we can drink it, as long as it’s safe,” Smith said. “I’ll take American Water. I’ll take new members on the current board. I’ll take anyone.”
While more than half of the formal complaints filed against the PSD in 2019 asked for a WVAW takeover by name, Martin assured that the company has not contacted any residents on the ground.
“That’s something they’re doing organically. We’ve not reached out,” Martin said. “The only outreach we’re responsible for is providing [water tanks] when there are boil-water advisories, and writing to [the PSD] requesting meetings. That’s it.”
While the public, through the complaints and the petition, seems to be supportive of new management, David is worried they’re acting without seeing facets of the whole picture.
He’s concerned about making the New River the new water source, citing examples of pollution and contamination that he said would never threaten the underground wells operated by the PSD. He’s also concerned about WVAW’s practice of taking over drinking water systems, but not wastewater.
“We have built our system, you might say, to have economies of scale so that the whole thing — water and sewage — operates as a single unit,” David said. “Without one, how would we operate the other?”
Martin said that, in this instance, WVAW would actually consider taking over the wastewater side, since there’s an existing wastewater facility in Fayetteville that has the capabilities to take on the customers.
As far as rates, customers will pay more whether WVAW takes over or the PSD keeps control, according to Martin and the proposed certificate case.
For Smith, who, like many of her neighbors, is retired and lives on a fixed income, the price is one of the more concerning things. She said she’s seen the PSD bleed money through past projects, and yet her service has never improved. She got a $500 water bill just last week — not for the first time — and said she hasn’t been able to get a leak adjustment.
“The problems don’t stop, and I’m — we’re — exhausted here,” Smith said. “I think we all just want peace of mind, to feel safe with the water in our homes. It doesn’t matter how the water gets there or who makes it possible right now. We want better, and whoever can get us better is welcome.”
A public comment hearing will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Fayette County Courthouse regarding Page-Kincaid PSD’s case for a certificate of necessity. The public is encouraged to attend.