Residents of West Virginia’s 3rd District, in the southern part of the State and represented by House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee member Evan Jenkins, face as dire a health threat from contaminated water as exists nearly anywhere else in the country.
In 2014 we reported on the chemical spill in Charleston that left more than 300,000 residents without usable water, including those in the 3rd District counties of Boone, Lincoln, Logan and parts of Cabell, but as unfortunate as it was, that incident doesn’t even represent the worst water crisis faced by West Virginia residents. Many communities in the State, including those in the 3rd District and particularly in coal communities, have been dealing with water outages and boil water advisories for decades.
In January, West Virginia Public News published a story (Inside Appalachia: Water in the Coalfields) that discussed widespread reports of contaminated water in West Virginia coalfield areas. The article pointed out that mountainous regions in the southern part of the State have an abundance of water, but the combination of terrain and aging infrastructure have made safe and healthy water a scarce commodity for years. Many of the water systems in use in that region today were installed in the early 1900s and are in dire need of replacement. Rural towns suffering from the departure of coal companies that once fueled their economies lack the funds to maintain their water lines and other infrastructure. As a result, for many residents “boil water” advisories are a way of life. In certain parts of the 3rd District’s McDowell County such as Keystone, for example, residents have been advised not to consume or use water before boiling since 2010. And residents of adjacent Northfork have been on a boil water advisory since 2013. One local resident was quoted in the WVPN piece as saying, “You never know when you’re going to have water.”
As the WVPN piece discussed, the health effects of long-term exposure to water contaminated by West Virginia’s aging pipes and other water infrastructure are frightening. West Virginia public health experts have pointed out that compromised water like that in the State’s crumbling pipes can cause infectious disease, gastrointestinal problems, cancer, and other health problems. And bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can inhabit water tainted by inadequate pipes can cause diarrhea, eye and respiratory infections, diabetes and brain damage. As one researcher indicated, the danger to West Virginia residents represents nothing short of a public health crisis.
And a recently released report by Boston Action Research, a project of the Civil Society Institute, concluded that two years after the Elk River chemical spill, West Virginia American Water, the utility which serves 40 percent of West Virginia’s population, remains poorly equipped to deal with future disasters. The report points out that communities that the utility serves continue to experience frequent boil water warnings, and the critical need for repairs to the State’s aging infrastructure requires cash infusions that have led to numerous rate hikes in recent years. Recurrent water main breaks are frequently causing schools to close early and reducing business inventory, according to one official. The report indicates that in June 2015 alone, 20,000 people in two counties went without water for seven days due to two water main breaks.
Residents of West Virginia are desperate for modernized water infrastructure – their health, safety, and livelihoods depend on it. But the State’s rural communities lack the resources to foot the enormous costs of replacing decrepit pipes and water mains, and the federal government must meet its responsibility to help. Grant Smith, senior energy analyst and lead author of the Civil Society Institute Report referred to above, stated that “An infusion of federal taxpayer dollars is essential to upgrade the country’s water infrastructure and ensure affordable water bills.” Assistance, including State Revolving Fund (SRF) appropriations, must increase; Congressman Jenkins owes it to his constituents and to all residents of West Virginia to make this happen.