During the 2015 Legislative Lookahead — an annual gathering of West Virginia news media and politicians to go over some of the issues that will be prevalent in the upcoming legislative session — the water crisis from the year before was on everyone’s mind.
And rightly so. The chemical spill that resulted in 300,000 people in nine counties going without access to clean, reliable water service for an extended period of time was eye-opening. When it came time at the 2015 event to discuss the topic, Beth Vorhees, the venerable, now-retired host and reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, made an off-handed remark that went something like, “You could argue there are parts of West Virginia where water is always a crisis.” It was just an off-the-cuff aside, but it was completely true, and remains so.
For instance, a nationwide study released this week found 36 West Virginia counties are among the worst in the country for water violations that threaten the health of consumers. When you consider West Virginia has 55 counties, and 65 percent of them were in the bottom-third of the entire nation when it comes to such violations from 2016 through early 2019, the scope of the problem is starkly visible and upsetting.
A lot of these issues stem from long-standing contamination from the coal and chemical industries across West Virginia. In poorer or more isolated areas of the state, many water systems were installed to serve towns built around coal operations. After those operations shuttered, the infrastructure decayed and there’s no money to even begin fixing the problem.
Gazette-Mail reporter and Report For America correspondent Caity Coyne has documented how some towns have been under continuous boil-water advisories for as long as 17 years. But more troubling, as indicated in the study, are instances where the water is unsafe but customers aren’t made aware of the issue.
What’s more, industry lobbyists have continually tried to loosen water quality regulations in West Virginia, hoping to bolster business interests through heavier pollution in a state that doesn’t really have a strict handle on the issue to begin with.
We argue that this ongoing problem has the opposite effect. Forget broadband — how is West Virginia supposed to compete in a national or global business climate when several communities don’t have reliable, safe water?
Clean water isn’t a luxury service. It’s a basic need for health and survival, and the fact that the majority of a state in the middle of one of the wealthiest countries on earth can’t meet that essential staple should be confounding nearly beyond belief.
And yet, no one is really surprised at this latest news. West Virginians know it’s a problem because it’s always been a problem. They’ve found ways to work around it and get by, or they’ve gotten sick. Certainly, they’ve seen neighbors and loved ones fall ill — and perhaps even die — because this essential component for all life had been poisoning them.
It’s more than unfair to West Virginians that these problems persist. It’s inhumane. The sooner those in a position to make a difference grasp this moral obligation and start to address it, the better.