Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tainted water a way of life for Appalachian residents in Southern West Virginia coalfields

For some residents in the coalfields of Appalachian West Virginia whose water systems were installed nearly 100 years ago by coal companies—most of whom have since abandoned the region—water boil advisories are a way of life, Jessica Lilly, Glynis Board and Roxy Todd report for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. (Lilly photo: It's common to see people gathering water from mountain springs in McDowell County)

In Keystone in McDowell County, one of the nation's poorest counties, a water advisory has been in place since 2010, while neighboring Northfork has been on a boil water advisory since 2013, WVPB writes. McDowell County had more than 100,000 residents during the region's coal-boom in the 1950s, but today, because coal is no longer a viable option for employment, there are fewer than 20,000 residents.

"It's common to see folks filing up water jugs and tanks from mountain springs. For many, it's the only source of water they have," WVPB writes. Betty Younger, who grew up in McDowell County, said "she just assumes not to drink it, rarely uses it for cooking and doesn't even count on regular access." She told WVPB, “You never know when you’re going to have water."

The source of the region's water problems are vast and are part of the reason why Southern West Virginia is one of the least healthy areas in the country and has some of the shortest average life spans, WVPB writes. Tainted water can be attributed partially to mountaintop removal, with minerals and metals (like manganese, which has been associated with intellectual impairment in children) found in water supplies.

"But for all of the concerns about water compromised by natural and industrial sources, and the cancer, decay, infection and disease that can come with regular exposure to that contamination, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute Paul Ziemkiewicz said that the biggest threat in water supplies throughout southern West Virginia [and many areas in the state] by a long shot is raw sewage," WVPB writes.

Maggie Nevi, the Project Coordinator for the Waste Water Treatment Coalition in McDowell County, told WVPB, “Right now 67 percent of the county has no form of waste water treatment whatsoever. And they do what’s called straight-piping, which is exactly what it sounds like.”

That has led to "bacteria, parasites and viruses that can cause short-term problems like diarrhea, eye infections, respiratory infection and long-term problems like cancer, Dementia and Diabetes," WVPB writes. "And there are growing concerns about potential illnesses or effects from exposure to pharmaceuticals and synthetic hormones introduced through sewage." (Read more)

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