It is ironic for those who volunteer for practically nothing in the fight for healthy water to be attacked by highly paid executives like Robert Burton of West Virginia American Water, for doing the same job they proclaim to do. Burton is not a saint. He does his job questionably, as 231,000 residents and businesses will verify after the Elk River fiasco.
It is also ironic that Burton calls upon public officials to invest more in water systems for upgrades and repairs when his firm has directly opted to block over a $3 million approved investment for the Page-Kincaid Public Service District and is engaged in similar tactics to become a monopoly using free surface water for private gain in the state.
While river water is available at no charge to providers, there is a big difference between use by a nonprofit Public Service District and West Virginia American Water. West Virginia American Water is a private business that earns a generous profit for investors, who in essence are taking a major West Virginia resource for nothing. Furthermore, Burton and the head of the parent firm earn huge salaries — over $4,983,114 in 2018 for the CEO of the parent firm — that both could and should be used for the necessary upgrades and repairs.
West Virginia American Water has a notorious record for not serving the public good and public safety. The recent fiasco with its Elk River plant is an example. Another is the company’s refusal to join in the Fayette County Commission lawsuit alleging that coal companies were contaminating public water aquifers with iron infusions from blasting and mining.
Its touted state-of-the-art water treatment plant on the New River draws on a water supply contaminated by agricultural pesticides in the Carolinas, chemical plants in Virginia, a railroad tank car dump near Princeton, PCBs from Minden, black fly spraying, railroad pesticides along the tracks in the New River Gorge and a major abandoned riverside dump in Fayette County near Cunard.
The only way it produces compliant EPA water is with chemicals, and local residents complain that early morning tap water smells like water in a swimming pool. The firm sourced water from the Minden mines for a decade after PCBs were dumped in those mine shafts by Shaffer Equipment, which is now a centerpiece for an EPA SuperFund site. It still uses asbestos-lined pipes, as confirmed by a licensed West Virginia building contractor who uncovered the lines.
In addition, Burton’s New River plant suffered a major shutdown in early December due to a lack of proper management oversight. The shutdown impacted tens of thousands of families and caused West Virginia American Water to rush in tankers to several distribution points in Fayette County. The number of tankers going in as a caravan at 20 miles per hour clogged highways for miles and was unnecessary. A friendly offer from the Page-Kincaid PSD to provide nearby water was rejected. Furthermore, people were angry because no containers or bottled water was provided at the emergency sites.
West Virginia American Water claims that its New River plant has won awards. What it does not admit is that it tests only for EPA designated contaminants. It does not test for E. coli, chloroform, Giardia, personal care products and pharmaceuticals, including prescriptions (over-the-counter and veterinary medications) and perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA). PFOA has been detected in the blood of more than 98 percent of the general U.S. population and causes kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertension. It is a carcinogen, a liver toxicant and an immune system toxicant. People who drink more surface-sourced tap water, eat locally grown fruit and vegetables, or eat local meat tend to have elevated PFOA levels.
As of late 2019, it was not yet on the EPA list to be treated, nor was it treated at West Virginia American Water’s “state of the art” New River plant. If it were, an expensive process called reverse osmosis would have to be deployed resulting in a re-designed facility. The PFOA issue is featured in the documentary “The Devil We Know,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018; “Dark Waters,” a film released in November 2019; articles/blog entries by Ken Ward in The Charleston Gazette on November 7, 2008 and January 17, 2009; and research by professor Alan Ducatman at West Virginia University.
The bottom line is that water is a public good. Clean water is necessary for life. Safe water is a human right.