Many Coal Towns Lack Reliable Water Supply

  • The mountain spring in Maybeaury, W.Va. is often crowded with folks gathering water for their homes. Credit: Jessica Lilly.

January 30, 2015
By Jessica Lilly

Listen to the original story from West Virginia Public Broadcasting here.

While the chemical spill in Charleston left 300,000 people without access to clean water for ten days, people who live near coal mines deal with water issues every day. In McDowell County, the southernmost tip of West Virginia, some communities have been on boil water advisories for years. Many of the water systems were put in by coal companies. But they haven't been updated since the 1950s, when the industry there began to decline.

"Great need" for water system renovations

Eric Combs with the Region One Planning and Development Council says there are 58 water and sewer projects expected in the near to distant future in McDowell, Wyoming, Monroe, Summers, and Mercer Counties.

“There is a great need through out the whole but it seems like there is a greater need per say in Southern West Virginia,” he said.

One re-occurring challenge is replacing dated systems left behind by coal companies. Jennifer Hause with the West Virginia Water Research Institute can vouch for the system in Gary, her hometown. Hause says during the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s her father maintained the water system as an employee of U.S. Steel. Around that time, the company began to pull out and close mines in the area. In this video, local historian and Wyoming County Circuit Clerk David "Bugs" Stover explains that the region has an abundance of water.

Coal's legacy: "It's not supposed to be that way..."

It’s a common story throughout the coalfields of West Virginia although some communities didn’t necessarily keep water operators. In neighboring Wyoming, County Clerk Mike Goode explains.

“As the coal companies moved out they abandoned those utilities and the citizens had to take over those,” Goode said.

Goode and other elected officials made it a priority to replace the coal camp water systems and is proud to share success stories about places like Copperston, Wyoming and Glover where it was the folks in the communities making the repairs and doing what had to be done, to get water in their homes.

“Those people would get out in the middle of the night older people you know 70 and 80 years old in the middle of the night they’re out digging up a water lines trying to fix a leak. It’s not supposed to be that way in America.”

When there's no water system at all

Despite the struggle to maintain these dated, crumbling systems, throughout the region, it seems the communities left with the coal company plumbing were the fortunate ones. Some places don’t have systems at all. But they make do with what they have.  Jennifer Hause paints the picture she saw at Coal Mountain on the Wyoming, McDowell County border a few years ago.

"Their source of water was a reused gasoline tank  that set up on the hillside that collected water from a spring," she said, "then a series of garden hoses brought it down the hill basically to another storage tank that someone would go and add a few gallons of bleach to every so often.”

Hause says it’s pretty typical for the coalfield region.

Residents are resourceful and resilient with these circumstances. For some folks, it’s the abandoned coal mines that are often used for a source of drinking water too.

Like this one in Itmann in Wyoming County where a pipe comes out of the side of the mountain on the side of the road.

Folks often stop to fill up.  County Circuit Clerk David Bugs Stover grew up just a few miles from here in Pierpoint.

Abandoned coal mines are often used for a source of drinking water like the one at Pierpoint in Wyoming County, where County Circuit Clerk David Bugs Stover grew up.

“All that water gravity feeds and sometimes it’s treated and sometimes it’s not,” Stover said.

Stover says it was a true community system with its own set of challenges.

“I remember one time my mom didn’t have water for three months,” he said. “It can almost drive you to the point of insane.”

“So as much as I felt and did feel for the folks in Charleston, I know what it’s like to go months and if you want water you go carry it out of the creek.”

While pickup trucks hauling water was an unusual site in Charleston last year during the chemical spill, it’s common and a part of every day life for folks in the coalfields.

Some folks use a cistern to store and collect water.

Terry Johnson is a self proclaimed "mountain man" and gathers water for his community. He says he wouldn't have it any other way.  Some folks are accepting of what they call the sacrifice of ‘mountain living’ while others really aren't interested, or can't afford a water bill.

“You have people that are third or fourth generation that they have to carry their water and a well with a lot of iron and they don’t know that there’s a better life,” Mike Goode said.

While there are others that are growing impatient with what they call 'empty promises' for access to public water. But mountain springs and abandoned mines can be good sources of water--some of the best water in the world, in fact. Marc Glass with Downstream Strategies says folks still should just be cautious.

“Your ground water needs to be protected the same way,” he said.

Several systems have been replaced but there is still more work to be done. For many folks in the coalfields today, a crumbling sometimes-abandoned coal industry water systems, mountain springs, streams, and store-bought bottled water are the options. And they can’t live without water.

All photos by Jessica Lilly.

A pipe comes out of an old coal mine in Itmann in Wyoming County where some folks gather drinking water.

Terry Johnson lives on Burke Mountain in McDowell County where resident haul water to use in their homes.