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Report: Clean-Running Water Crisis Hits Underserved Americans

Some West Virginia residents are facing a polluted water crisis partly from industrial runoff. (Adobe stock)
Some West Virginia residents are facing a polluted water crisis partly from industrial runoff. (Adobe stock)
November 26, 2019

KIMBALL, W.Va. — More than 2 million Americans live without running water and basic indoor plumbing, according to a new report by water access group DigDeep. The report finds lack of clean water hits vulnerable communities in the country particularly hard, including the Navajo Nation in the Southwest and coal regions in McDowell County, West Virginia.

McDowell County resident Linda McKinney said people there have struggled for years for this basic human need, facing polluted, unreliable running water. She said the impoverished region doesn't have the tax base to fund improvements.

"I'm 63 years old and it's been going on since I was born,” McKinney said. “And it's now come to the point we're in a disaster mode because our water is contaminated."

McKinney said many people have to use run-down coal-camp water systems that were never kept up and were left abandoned when coal companies folded. She said the water that runs through these systems - when they run at all - picks up contaminants, putting health and daily living in jeopardy.

Without clean, running water in their homes, the report said, folks in McDowell County resort to collecting water from mine shafts or from surface runoff from mountainsides, springs and streams.

But Cindy Rank, advocate with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy group, said even these sources can be polluted by industrial runoff from decades of mining and, now, fracking. She said lawmakers should have made sure coal companies left these communities with sanitary, safe water systems.

"That's one of the responsibilities that we've never held the coal industry to,” Rank said. “So we're left with a legacy that's going to take many, many, many millions of dollars and a lot of political will that's not there to help people who can't afford to create their own water system."

The report found federal funding of water is only at 14% of what it was in 1977. Researchers say one plan of action to ensure fair water access is to declare it a full-blown crisis and urge lawmakers to fund water infrastructure projects in these poverty-stricken regions.

Disclosure: West Virginia Highlands Conservancy contributes to our fund for reporting on Energy Policy, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Diane Bernard, Public News Service - WV