Who Owns West Virginia’s Water? A Cautionary Tale

Posted by Matt Wasson | January 16, 2014 at 1:04 pm


Filings by the West Virginia Public Service Commission document the dramatic expansion of West Virginia American Water Company's water network over the past two decades, and reveal why one-sixth of the people in the water-rich state depend on a single, privately-owned treatment system and distribution network for their drinking water. Photo by Foo Conner / Flickr

Filings by the West Virginia Public Service Commission reveal the dramatic expansion of West Virginia American Water Company’s water network over the past 20 years, and why one-sixth of the people in this water-rich state were left without safe water for nearly a week. Photo by Foo Conner / Flickr

It took a few days after a state of emergency was declared across nine West Virginia counties and one-sixth of the state’s population was told not to drink or bathe using their tap water for the national news media to discover a story of national importance occurring in the political backwaters of Appalachia.

But most haven’t yet picked up on what may be the most interesting and important detail: why so many people in this water-rich state depend on a single, privately-owned treatment system and distribution network that sprawls across nine counties for their supply of drinking water.

In many communities, the tale of coal industry activities polluting people’s drinking water supply is anything but new. Places like Prenter in Boone County have seen a lot worse.

The topic of waste from coal preparation plants polluting well water in Prenter was the centerpiece of a blockbuster piece published by The New York Times in 2009 that described the systemic failures of states like West Virginia to enforce the federal Clean Water Act. Here’s the lead from that story:

Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes.

Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

A 2009 New York Times article described how coal slurry had contaminated communities’ well water, leading to painful rashes, dental decay and, eventually, an expanded customer base for private water companies.

A 2009 New York Times article described how coal slurry had contaminated communities’ well water, leading to painful rashes, dental decay and, eventually, an expanded customer base for private water companies.

Reporter Charles Duhigg goes on to say that residents and scientists believe the pollution got into their water from injections of coal slurry — the waste byproduct of washing coal — into abandoned mine shafts, where it could flow through cracks in the earth into groundwater and, ultimately, the wells of local residents. According to the Times, coal companies had injected nearly two billion gallons of coal slurry into the ground within an eight-mile radius of Prenter between 2004 and 2009. For context, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled only one-tenth that much oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The article also describes the roots of the latest crisis in West Virginia in appalling detail: how even well-intentioned and ambitious state regulators proved no match for the politically sophisticated and powerful coal industry, how local politicians punish regulators who do their job effectively, and how the coal industry has perfected the art of dodging accountability for the damage it causes. But picking up where the Times left off, the story of how Prenter finally got drinking water restored provides even more useful insight into the roots of last week’s water crisis.

In late 2009, the state gave final approval[PDF] for a public-private partnership between Boone County and West Virginia American Water Company — the utility that owns the treatment facility and water distribution network shut down since last Thursday — for a multi-million dollar project to run water lines out to Prenter and nearby communities. The project was mostly paid for by a federal Housing and Urban Development grant, with Boone County and West Virginia American Water Company making up the difference. Not a penny was paid by the coal companies that polluted the water in the first place.

The paper trail of the state’s Public Service Commission filings that document the dramatic expansion of WVAWC’s water network over the past two decades (see map below) reveals similar stories happening again and again, as the company gobbled up one municipal utility after another, as well as individual homes whose wells were polluted by coal mining activities.

In one example, in 2004 the state gave approval for WVAWC to develop the Sharples Water Line Extension project in Logan County, which, according to PSC documents[PDF], was necessary because a coal company’s mining plans were likely to destroy wells that had provided a reliable supply of clean drinking water to nearby residents for generations. According to the documents:

Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel Mine will use longwall mining techniques. This will potentially de-water the aquifer that is the source for the Logan County [Public Service Department’s] Sharples system. Private wells in the community of Mifflin could potentially be compromised by longwall mining practices from the Mountain Laurel Mine.

The cost of the project, which was ultimately approved, was shared between Arch Coal, WVAWC and a Community Development Block Grant. While the documents sought to justify the expense on the grounds that the extension would “eliminate the use of local groundwater and provide a more than adequate supply of drinking water that will sustain the expected growth in the project area,” nobody seriously believed there would be any “expected growth” near a massive mining complex in Logan County, where the population has been declining for decades.

The real motivation for the project is found further down in the engineering report, which details the expected economic development benefits:

The extension Project will help satisfy mine permitting requirements for Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel mine.

Similar evidence of how public money has been used to directly benefit the coal industry — while simultaneously expanding the customer base of a private, multinational water company — runs throughout West Virginia PSC documents. In many cases, public funds were not used quite so directly to subsidize coal companies, but rather to restore water service to homes where wells or community water systems dried up or were destroyed by coal industry activities (see here[PDF] and here[PDF]).

Unsurprising to anyone familiar with West Virginia politics, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was quick to absolve the coal industry of culpability for the current disaster, blaming it on the chemical industry — and a particularly bad actor at that. But any attempt to decouple the coal industry from this disaster fails the laugh test, given that the spilled chemical was not only used by mining companies to wash coal, but that it had already been oozing into West Virginians’ water supply long before last Thursday through underground injections of coal slurry near communities such as Prenter. What’s more, as the Times and other observers make clear, the lackadaisical attitude of state regulators toward inspections is itself a result of the coal industry’s longstanding and overwhelming influence over state government at all levels.

But would a better system of permitting and inspecting chemical facilities have prevented this disaster from occurring? Would it prevent a different type of accident, say if an out-of-control barge or tractor-trailer runs into a chemical storage tank? What about intentional sabotage or, God forbid, a terrorist attack?

The fact that 16 percent of the state’s population depends on WVAWC’s Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Facility for drinking water is a central factor in the scale of the disaster and, as the PSC paper trail demonstrates, the coal industry has a lot of culpability in that situation as well. But still other factors have led to the expansion and consolidation of WVAWC’s service territory, which is why the moral of this story applies beyond coal country.

The West Virginia chemical spill is a cautionary tale for communities all over the country where multinational companies are coming in and buying up municipal water utilities to manage people’s drinking water supply for profit. And factors beyond groundwater pollution by the coal industry are driving those trends, such as systemic under-investment in public water systems by federal, state and local governments, and the rapaciousness with which private companies, aided by political favoritism and lobbying, are pursuing expansion of their influence, customer base and profit margins.

There is much more that can be said about the risks and drivers of water privatization, and people should read the many excellent reports published by Food and Water Watch on the subject.

But there are also immediate things people can do to help West Virginians and people across Appalachia reduce the risk of this type of accident from happening again. There is currently an effort afoot by West Virginians to protect their homes and water supply by taking away the authority of the demonstrably ineffective West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to oversee coal mine permitting in the state and instead turning the program over to federal authorities. You can support that effort here.

There is also a coalition of groups across Appalachia working to ensure the Obama administration fulfills its much-delayed promise to replace a Bush-era rule that weakened regulations on mining near streams. You can support this and other efforts by Appalachian groups to end mountaintop removal by signing up on iLoveMountains.org.


16 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    My 33 year old husband died of cancer in 2009. He grew up in Williamson, WV. I KNOW that his exposure to this continually untested water while an infant and/or when his mother was pregnant contributed heavily to it. He loved West Virginia and his family very much, but he insisted that we not live where he grew up because of the awful water and air caused by unchecked industry. So our 2 kids, now age 10 and 7, may not have a father but at least they have their health.

  2. Karen Sherry Brackett says:

    Good article. It is also a precautionary tale for America in the dangerous practice of allowing monopolies to grow up again. American Water Company holds water contracts in 30 states and in Canada.

  3. lon Crow says:

    At what point will the people realize that clean coal does nothing for the state. The coal sponsored politicians should be put on trial for crimes against humanity

  4. matt says:

    Mary, I have heard so many similar stories in WV and I am just so terribly sorry to hear about yours. Here in the part of Appalachia blessed without coal, I don’t know of a single person who died of cancer in their 20s and 30s – I know some exist, but in WV and KY, I could list off half dozen people without even thinking about it. I’m glad to hear your kids are healthy. Together we will make sure the kids still in Williamson have a fair shot at good health as well. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Ed Walker says:

    I do not understand how the water company didn’t notice it was selling blue water that smelled like licorice.

    What kind of monitoring of water quality does West Virginia Water Company do? Has anyone asked?

  6. matt says:

    Karen, I couldn’t agree more that the biggest lessons from this disaster are not about the coal industry, but are about turning over our most precious natural resources to private monopolies to manage for a profit.

    Ed, as I understand it, West Virginia American Water initially thought they could filter it out and so didn’t send out the “do not use” warning until late in the day. Yeah… I share your concern that it took them so long. As for the testing, they do the same kind of testing that is mandated for all public water systems in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Whether or not there are tests the company could have been using voluntarily that would detect this and the thousands of similar chemicals that fall through the loopholes in the Toxic Substances Control Act is beyond my knowledge. But in WVAW’s defense, they’re certainly not alone here – we’ll need a more systemic solution to that problem.

  7. amy says:

    Im tired of this. all these crooked people getting away with murder. I have suffered stress and my son has lost educational days at school that they have to make up for something they didn’t even do. Im concerned for our health. we have to do something.

  8. […] waited for word on when my air and water might really be clean […]

  9. kristin federer says:

    Even as we speak out about these tragedies bigger problems loom overhead, as the hydrofracturing gas industry is EXEMPT?!? from the clean water act. :( I love this state. It saddens me deeply to feel like I woupd have to move to remain healthy :*(

  10. Kathryn A. Stone says:

    No one has mentioned that WV American Water Company is German-owned. kas

  11. matt says:

    Kristin, actually that exemption is for parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act, not the Clean Water Act – but that doesn’t change the point you’re making (strengthens it if anything).

    Kathryn, actually American Water was bought by a German company that owned it for 3 years, but then got rid of it when they realized what how much citizens seemed to care about how their water was managed – I think that they divested back in 2008. The group Food & Water Watch has a fascinating report they published just on that subject.

  12. Carolyn says:

    Wonderful article. There’s a lot more to be discovered in this mess, shine the light of truth on it for us please!

  13. […] where mining occurred, water was seven times worse than in counties without mining. In addition, contamination of watersheds in West Virginia is part of the reason why so many people depend on a single water […]

  14. […] At Appalachian Voices of West Virginia, Matt writes—Who Owns West Virginia’s Water? A Cautionary Tale: […]

  15. […] At Appalachian Voices of West Virginia, Matt writes—Who Owns West Virginia’s Water? A Cautionary Tale: […]

  16. Kathy Stuart says:

    I think the larger point to be made here, and I am not saying the monopolizing the water isn’t a huge issue, nor am I saying that contaminated wells aren’t a huge issue; to me the greater horror is that about a third of WV groundwater is contaminated. This affects ALL living things in those areas. WV is blessed with many free flowing artesian springs which all manner of wildlife will drink from. The plants will become contaminated as well.

    It is not just a problem of the people but the entire ecosystem. And apparently no one in charge gives a tinker’s damn.

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