Tammie Bailey worries every day that her water will turn bad. That the smell of rotten eggs and rotting meat will come out of her kitchen tap again. Worse still, that the water will be the soupy mix of sediment and contaminants that forced her to the homes of neighbors and relatives to cook and shower for weeks last summer.
“Last July I noticed my water kept getting a little bit redder and the smell was a little bit stronger,” she told CNN. She got new water filters, but they did not help. “One day I came home and I turned my tap on … and this is what I got. This was my water,” she said, holding out a plastic bottle containing an orangey red liquid with the consistency of chocolate milk.
Bailey relies on water from a well. Her neighborhood in Mohawk, West Virginia, looks like it could be on the rural outskirts of any city. One- and two-story homes sit on verdant lots, a little back from the paved road. Power poles take electricity to homes but no municipal water lines have ever been built. She’s one of an estimated 2.2 million Americans without access to clean, running water and indoor plumbing.
Bailey said she had the water tested and 14 contaminants were found, including iron and E. coli. Her well was pumping out water so polluted from natural and man-made runoff that all the pipes, fixtures and faucets inside her home had to be replaced, she said.
Industry brought wealth but left a hole
Families, including hers, have lived in this part of the Appalachian Mountains for generations and are the kind of people to help each other out, Bailey said. But there is only so much that can be done by the community, and she worries that the water could turn bad for her neighbors, her elderly father, her children and grandchildren.
“It’s a whole lot frustrating. I don’t know why we can’t get help to get some lines down here,” she said. “I don’t know why, living in the country that we live, people don’t have running water.” Bailey said she was helped by DigDeep, a non-profit group that says clean, running water is a human right that should be available to all Americans.
Coal mining and logging once made this place prosperous. Some companies built their own water plants, but when the extraction industries moved on and moved out, they left the infrastructure and people behind, as well as some bitterness.
“People have been exploited for many decades,” said Abby Bradshaw, a field engineer for the Appalachia Water Project, a field operation of DigDeep. “People who have lived in a place where there were extractive industries, where their entire environment around them was taken away, where you have mountaintops entirely removed, where you have vegetation stripped down by logging or mining and where these people put their bodies, their health, their lives on the line for decades to do that. And now, in return, they are living with unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation.”
Some people have wells. Some tap into old water lines from deserted mines. Some haul water to their homes – filling up tanks and jugs, knowing which sources are clear enough for washing only and which they hope are good enough to drink. Even firefighters rely on rivers for water in some of the communities.
Sewage pollutes fish streams
The sound of water is everywhere in the small towns of McDowell County, founded in 1858. From rushing mountain streams to babbling creeks and the forks of the Tug River, this bringer of life is all around. Fishing is popular among residents and visitors, along with heading out on ATV trails. But any fish caught are not for the dinner plate as much of the water is polluted with raw human sewage.
No municipal water service also means no sewers. And with septic tanks impractical or too expensive, pipes from homes carry waste water from toilets, showers and sinks straight to streams.
“This is really the only option they’ve ever had,” said Eddie George of DigDeep, gesturing to the homes by the Greenbrier River.
He grew up in the area, moved away as a young man before coming back and ending up working in a job that is very personal to him.
As a boy, he said, he helped his father haul water to his grandmother’s house. She didn’t have running water until she was 70 years old, he said.
Now every time the organization connects a home to mains water or they dig a new well, he sees his grandmother in the faces of the families, he said.
Decades-old technology in a 120-year-old building
The Environmental Protection Agency is well aware of the situation in McDowell County, in the south of the state. Administrator Michael Regan visited late last year as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour to see what the agencies called underserved communities in need of environmental justice, a mission that has also taken him to Jackson, Mississippi, among other areas.
Regan toured a relic of the area’s past – a water pumping station – that’s still a key part of the present for at least 300 residents in Kimball who get their water from a central system.
There is a single pump, that looks rusted and ailing, with water spitting out of it to the ground. Above, the roof has caved in multiple times and light from the sky comes through a gaping hole behind the pump. If the pump goes down, engineers say, that is it. There will be no running water coming into the homes that rely on it.
“I walk into a building that’s leaking, that has ancient technology and people’s livelihoods are dependent upon this antiquated system,” he told CNN in December. “Three hundred people are relying on this 60-80-year-old pump not going out and this 120-year-old building not falling in. This is not what we should be having in this country.”
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021 and supported by both of West Virginia’s US Senators – Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito – promises some relief.
About $50 billion in funding from the act is being earmarked for water infrastructure programs, the EPA said. The White House said West Virginia will get $83 million for clean and safe water and some is set to come to McDowell County. Last month, the EPA said the town of Iaeger would get $1.5 million to eliminate 118 failing septic systems.
Bailey, whose old well water was so contaminated, isn’t sure mains water will come in her lifetime.
But Regan’s December visit is raising the spirits of George, the water and sanitation technician from DigDeep. He spent time with Regan and said they talked a lot about fishing as well as water trouble. “I’m starting to see the light a little bit,” he said.
“Nobody should be living like this. If we can pay taxes … why can’t we get something as simple as a basic right like water to our communities, to our people,” he said.