When the people running your community’s water system don’t trust it themselves, that’s a bad sign.
That’s the situation in O’Toole, where many of the people responsible for the unincorporated town’s water services are running water from the McDowell County Public Service District in their own homes, according to an article published in Sunday’s edition of the Gazette-Mail.
They’re not the only ones in the small community to hook up to the larger, more reliable McDowell PSD. But the remaining customers of the O’Toole Water Association can’t afford the tap or connection fees to make the switch. A nonprofit is trying to change that and, hopefully, it will succeed.
Like many communities in rural West Virginia, O’Toole’s water system was built by a coal company, then abandoned and left to crumble when the industry dried up.
Residents connected to the O’Toole system have been under a continuous boil-water advisory for almost 17 years. Water service is unreliable, and what comes out of the tap when it is working is heavily contaminated and not close to safe for drinking (animal carcasses have been found in the city’s uncovered water tower). The water has a stench to it that residents say they have to mask with copious amounts of lotion. Many suspect the water might have caused serious health problems or made existing problems worse.
Also troubling is that there is little to no documentation or accountability concerning the water system. No bills go out, and the water authority doesn’t provide residents with any form of notice when the water isn’t working. Reports to government agencies are spotty and incomplete. Residents are told what they owe, and they pay it. Even if they don’t pay, the O’Toole Water Authority has no way of shutting off service, because none of the water hookups are metered. Meanwhile, residents have no idea where their money for water service goes but are often told nothing is ever fixed because they’re not paying enough.
This is happening in the middle of the United States in the 21st century.
If all or just some of these conditions were a problem for a month, or even a week, in a town with more people who had more resources, it would be national news and outrage would spark change overnight. In a place where now only 17 families still use the water system, it’s been dragging on for 6,179 days.
The number of people affected doesn’t make it any less of an emergency. As one resident put it, “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?”
What’s worse is that there are so many other communities like this throughout rural West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Because it occurs in small pockets and hurts people who can’t do much to effect change, what is tantamount to a humanitarian crisis is largely ignored.
Take all of those pockets — those tiny communities in hollows that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about — and combine them. If numbers are important, how many people are really being hurt when looking at the problem as a whole? No one should have to live in these conditions, but the amount of people who do, when examining the entire picture, is shocking and sad.
If the nonprofit Keeper of the Mountains Foundation is able to help the people of O’Toole afford hooking up to a better system, that’s a victory, and it should be celebrated. There’s still a larger battle to be waged and won here, though. Wars have been fought in foreign countries where the United States has repaired or installed a better infrastructure than what is in place in this country’s very heartland. That has to change.