Most West Virginians who had their water taps shut off after a chemical spill was discovered on the Elk River in January have been told their water is safe to drink and bathe in. But even though business in Kanawha Valley is back to normal, some communities outside the Charleston region are still coping without tap water. And it isn’t because of a chemical spill.
For some of West Virginia’s former coal-mining towns, free-flowing tap water has not been a reality for months or years. Towns that during the early- to mid-1900s were bustling with coal workers, resources and money are now much smaller and poorer and face substantial obstacles to upgrading an infrastructure that hasn’t been addressed in years. Other communities rely on well water and contend with diminishing water sources or wells that are no longer safe to use for drinking water. Boil alerts can be a common occurrence in America’s deep rural communities.
In the towns of Bud and Alpoca, just two hours outside of Charleston, access to clean water is a pervasive issue. For its 400-some residents the problem isn’t because of deteriorating waterlines of a 100-year-old coal town, but something more recent and personal: the death of the utility plant operator.
The town has been under a boil advisory since last September when Alpoca Water Works ceased working. According to Virginia Lusk, the new principal for Herndon Consolidated Elementary and Middle School in Bud, residents must truck in drinking water and drinking fountains in the local school have been taped over with black garbage bags to prevent accidental use. The problem however, she says, is “no one’s fault.”
Although the water is now running in the teachers’ lounge, financial costs and ongoing negotiations between multiple parties have kept the boil alert on and the drinking fountains shut off due to unsafe conditions.
But the two towns in Wyoming County are only the most recent additions to the list of U.S. communities with unsafe or insufficient access to potable water. The 2000 census revealed that West Virginia ranked fifth in the country for states lacking complete plumbing facilities for its residents. More than 7,450 residents in the state lacked plumbing infrastructure, either because of poor or nonexistent access to running water, sewage systems, or both. And the county with the most deficiencies? Kanawha, home to the city of Charleston.
Nor is West Virginia the only state to have rural water woes. All 50 states and the US protectorates Puerto Rico and American Samoa have communities that lack adequate plumbing facilities. States like Alaska (no. 1 in the ranking of those with communities lacking adequate access to water and plumbing), New Mexico (3) and Arizona (4) also face challenges in ensuring residents have adequate resources.
The international human rights organization Water.org, which was co-founded by actor Matt Damon, states that more than 780 million people throughout the world lack access to safe drinking water. For most Americans, like the residents of Charleston, W. Va., who have been impacted by chemical spills, their place on those rolls is temporary and subject to crisis intervention by local officials. But for West Virginia’s small towns like Bud and Alpoca, who are still waiting for infrastructure upgrades, a drink of water from the tap can still take a lot longer to get.
By Jan Lee
The Water Infrastructure Network