Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 4, 2014

Water woes: Problems extend past Charleston

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — The chemical spill in Charleston this past January brought national attention to the issue of water safety in West Virginia. However, water quality and quantity woes are nothing new to families living in the coalfield counties.

Take McDowell County for example. Mavis Brewster, executive director of the McDowell County Public Service District, estimates that there are still between 2,000 to 3,000 people in the county who do not have access to clean tap water or suitable well water.

In fact, it’s not unusual to see people with both small and large water tanks parked just off of U.S. Route 52 collecting water from a spring or old mine source near the Maybeury community. Some have been using that natural spring for drinking water for years. That’s because many families in McDowell County are still lacking access to clean and reliable water.

Further complicating the problem are many of the smaller municipal and community water systems in the county that are aging — and in some cases deteriorating — with water lines that experience frequent breaks. It’s not uncommon for families in these areas to have to deal with frequent water outages and boil water advisories.

But some progress is being made in replacing the crumbling infrastructure. For example, the McDowell County PSD has just completed a $3.5 million federally funded project to bring water to 500 families on Bradshaw Mountain, Brewster told the Associated Press last week. Families living along Bradshaw Mountain had been paying $30 per 1,000 gallons of water hauled to their homes.

The PSD also is planning to begin construction this summer on the next phase of a water replacement project that will ultimately extend public drinking water all the way from Maybeury to Kimball along U.S. Route 52. The system will ultimately serve several communities, including Maybeury, Northfork, Keystone and Kimball.

But the need for modern water and wastewater treatment facilities across the region is still great. And the problems aren’t limited to McDowell County. There are several small communities in Mercer County that are still petitioning for public water. Just last month, families living along Nubbins Ridge, near Spanishburg, made a renewed plea to the Mercer County Commission for help. About 87 families are still in desperate need of public drinking water in the Nubbins Ridge community.

David Cole, executive director  of the Region 1 Planning and Development Council, estimates it will cost more than $250 million to meet the top priority water and sewage needs in the region. The planning council serves a six-county region that includes Mercer and McDowell.

Complicating matters is the ever-decreasing pool of state and federal grant dollars that were once readily available to address such emergency infrastructure needs. That’s why it is imperative that area officials leave no stone unturned in the search for funding to help those families who are still in need.

Everyone, including those who are elected on the local, state and federal levels, should be actively involved in this process. The fact that there are still many families in our region who lack access to safe and reliable drinking water is truly unfortunate.