O’TOOLE — For the first time that she can remember, Pam St. Clair watched her 16-year-old son get excited for the school year to begin.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to smell like that water this year,’” St. Clair said.
St. Clair and her family live in the small hollow of O’Toole, in Eastern McDowell County. Since the 1940s, the 30 or so families there had water piped into their homes from the O’Toole Water Association, a system created by a coal company when the area was a coal camp.
In recent years under the service, residents lived days, sometimes weeks, where the water would go out without warning. When it did run, it was discolored, and it smelled bad — really bad.
“Like rotten eggs, like something died, and it’d stick to your skin,” St. Clair said. “When I go to church, I know people could smell it. My boys, their schoolmates could smell it, and they’d make fun. It wouldn’t go away, no matter how much lotion you use, no matter how clean your clothes were.”
Last week, the McDowell County Public Service District completed its takeover of the O’Toole water system. The PSD is providing drinkable, clean water to all residents there for the first time in more than 17 years, when a boil-water advisory was issued for the community and never lifted.
“We feel ... we’re so happy, our lives are better. Easier. Things are easier,” said Rebecca Lewis, who lives next door to St. Clair.
The PSD’s takeover began last year, when about half the community paid $500 each to connect to central water. For some, though, coming up with $500 at once — $300 for a tap fee and a $50 deposit on top of various other expenses — wasn’t feasible. It would have meant skipped medications, cutting back on food or missing payments for other utilities.
With help from the nonprofit Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, the final 17 families that couldn’t afford to transfer raised more than $8,000 to cover the costs. Once the money was raised, the Huntington-based C.I. Thornburg Co., which specializes in water and wastewater services throughout central Appalachia, donated equipment — and manpower — to help the families install service lines to connect to the PSD’s water.
“We’re really happy we could see this through,” said Paul Corbit Brown, director of KOTM. “It was just a wonderful example of how well things can go if people come together for a common cause.”
With clean, reliable water now provided to every family in the community, residents are changing the way they’ve lived.
For B.J. Lewis, Rebecca Lewis’ husband, it means no more nights spent digging ditches with a friend in his yard until 2 a.m., looking for a leak or line break that caused the water to go out. It also means no more organizing community trips to different mountain springs in the area to fill up jugs of water, or delivering those jugs house to house.
“It was tiring, it was expensive, but that’s the way we lived,” Rebecca Lewis said. “Now, you know, we don’t have to worry that folks don’t have any water, or that kids maybe are going to get sick from drinking the water. That’s a weight off of all of us. They’re safer now.”
For Bobby Thompson, the clean water means enjoying his cup of coffee in the morning — and his several more throughout the day — with water straight from the tap. He doesn’t have to think about rationing enough to last the week.
Thompson’s wife, Carol, has lived in O’Toole her whole life. For the 64-year-old, using the water from the tap feels a bit unnatural.
“I don’t know what to do with it,” Carol Thompson said, laughing. “I walk up and I turn it on, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s something I’ve never done, but damn, am I happy I can now.”
Her showers have gotten longer, she said, and quality of life in general has improved.
“I just stand under that water, and it feels good on my skin. It doesn’t burn, I’m not afraid of it anymore, and I’ve spent a lot of years afraid of it,” Carol Thompson said.
For years, the water has stirred anxiety in many O’Toole residents. They’ve watched a disproportionate amount of neighbors suffer staph infections or contract MRSA after swimming in pools or bathing. Several residents — including Pam St. Clair — are battling cancer, or have died from cancer.
There’s little that can be done to tie illnesses and infections directly to the water, but for residents, the worry persisted.
St. Clair’s husband died of cancer a few years ago, just 18 days after they were married. She said her one wish today is that he could have been there to watch her take her first drink of water from the tap.
“Happy, he’d be so happy. Just tickled,” St. Clair said, smiling. “He hated this water and he always raised a stink about it, rightfully so. He died of cancer, you know, and a part of me, I’ll always wonder if the water had anything to do with it. I’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.”
While neighbors can now drink the water without worrying for their health, many are still paying for the harm done from being served by the O’Toole Water Association for so long.
St. Clair needs to replace all the faucets and water spigots in her home, as well as several pipes. For years, when the water did run, it could bring with it dirt, twigs, sediment, and, sometimes, tufts of animal hair that would clog pipes.
Several residents are in need of new hot water tanks, as well as washing machines, because of the wear from the water. Janet Long, who lives up the hill from St. Clair, said she has bought more than three hot water tanks in the past two years, alone.
Above-ground pools that were once filled with the association’s water — including St. Clair’s — sit empty in the neighborhood, many with inches of rust-colored sediment needing to be scrubbed from their bottom.
“We paid for all that, on top of our water bill,” St. Clair said. “New water heaters, new machines, thrown out clothes, gas to pick up jugged water. It all adds up to a lot.”
St. Clair and Carol Thompson said that, now, with the clean water, they’re considering themselves — and their neighbors — lucky. There are other parts of the county not too far from O’Toole where residents are living in conditions similar to those they were in just a few weeks ago.
“Some of them, there’s no water. Some have the nasty water like ours. We don’t got to worry about it now, but other folks do,” St. Clair said. “It’s not rare; it’s McDowell County.”
Similar to its takeover of O’Toole, the PSD is working on acquiring other systems that might be putting McDowell residents at risk, said Mavis Brewster, head of the PSD. Usually, though, takeovers are a long process — and they’re expensive.
“We do what we can around here, and we want to make sure as many people as possible have access to clean water, but we’re limited sometimes,” Brewster said. “We’re working the best we can.”
St. Clair said she hopes the success she and her neighbors had getting clean water will help inspire other people in similar situations to do the same.
“Speak up, that’s what you’ve got to do. Call whoever you can — that’s how we started — and people will pay attention, and they’ll help,” St. Clair said. “It was hard, at first, but when we all started doing it together, look what we did. Everyone deserves water they can drink, can shower in. You can’t live without it.”