Friday, December 07, 2018

Package from six-month investigation explores lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Appalachian parts of Ky. and W.Va.

A collaboration among media outlets aims to bring attention to the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia and spur public debate and change. Will Wright of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Caity Coyne of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Molly Born of West Virginia Public Broadcasting spent nearly six months interviewing dozens of residents, water district officials and experts before yesterday's publication of the multimedia "Stirring the Waters" package. The series was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project's Report for America initiative, a national service program funded in Appalachia by the Galloway Family Foundation.

Among the investigation's key findings:
  • Because water districts in Central Appalachia are understaffed and underfunded, they can't adequately perform routine maintenance. That leads to quality and reliability problems for customers and doesn't address long-term infrastructure problems.
  • Some districts routinely produce water with high levels of dangerous chemicals that can harm the most vulnerable customers, such as infants, pregnant women and the elderly; this violates the Safe Water Drinking Act.
  • Grants are the most sought-after source of funding for water projects, but there has been less and less of that money available in recent years. Low-interest loans are an increasingly popular source of funding, but the debt can overwhelm small water systems.
  • Some grant funding awarded to districts are so narrowly focused that they can't be used to fix water districts' most pressing problems.
  • Bill collection is the only real source of revenue for community water systems, but as the population in Central Appalachia drops, so do water systems' revenues.
  • Local politicians often pressure water boards to keep rates unchanged rather than raise rates gradually, which sometimes leads to financial catastrophe.
  • Nine community water systems in Southern West Virginia have been under boil water advisories for longer than five years. The state is aware of this, but there's no indication it's doing anything to help.
  • A clearinghouse for West Virginia infrastructure projects estimates that $17 billion is needed to correct the state's water and sewage problems and connect everyone to central systems. That number will rise the longer problems are ignored.

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