The Truth about Water in West Virginia

The Winfield Locks and Dams

Over the last few weeks, West Virginians have been enmeshed in a water disaster that has become more and more devastating with each revelation of information about the chemicals spilled, the amount of chemicals spilled, the neglect of Freedom Industries and government regulatory agencies, and the blind-eye turned on us by most of the national media. To many the water crisis is “over” and was never really as significant as we make it out to be. According to them West Virginians should just go back to business as usual. But we know from hundreds of accounts of everything from (for now) minor illnesses, to protracted hospital stays, to the possibility of long-term health repercussions caused by the contaminated water; the severe economic devastation that even our governor now acknowledges and desperately pleads the federal government to save us from; and from the emotional trauma many of us experience as a result of the chemical spill, that this crisis is not over.

During the two weekends I spent filming in West Virginia (more to come, I promise), I experienced what some may call serendipitous encounters and overlaps with my own work and the work and lives of others. I don’t call it serendipity. I call it the inevitable revelation of a state and a people and an environment at the zenith of its tipping point. In one Facebook forum, I came across a plea from a woman in McDowell County, WV , whose family had been without water for six straight days (now 12 days, as she has informed me). I immediately contacted her and spoke with her husband for over an hour about what caused them to be without water for so long. When they spoke of being without water, they were not speaking of being without clean water, but of being without water at all. Unlike those affected by the water crisis, they do not receive water from the state or federal government.

In this town in McDowell County, the water pumps are often non-functioning and are not maintained. Moreover, the money to maintain these pumps is either not there or is being withheld by town officials, in direct and admitted defiance of state regulations requiring them to provide water to the people of this small town, a people that continue to pay a water bill for water they don’t receive. This is not an isolated incident. The resident I spoke with about this ongoing problem didn’t have water for three months over the summer. After calling and writing officials all over the state of West Virginia about this problem he has experienced since moving to the town fifteen years ago, he has gotten zero results. The absolute horror that I felt listening to this family and community’s story is undoubtedly infinitesimal in comparison to what they experience daily. I promised I would do something to help, and this is a start to fulfilling that promise.

The kismet of all of this is that I recently hosted a documentary screening at Ohio State with Elaine McMillion, the director of Hollow: An Interactive Documentary, which tells the stories of residents of McDowell County. I watched Hollow when it was released this past summer on West Virginia Day, and spent some time with Elaine at the CreateWV conference. So even before speaking with residents of McDowell, I was already very familiar with the fact that water in McDowell County was not safe to drink or cook with. Elaine told me that when she lived in McDowell while filming for several months in 2012, residents insisted she not drink the water.

After devastating floods in 2001, McDowell County residents formed the Wastewater Treatment Coalition of McDowell County to investigate how the flood may have damaged their water supply. What they found is that 67% of the county’s water was not treated. That means the drinking water in McDowell County contains raw sewage. Elaine contacted me this morning to offer me permission to repost the following video from Hollow, which shows the beautiful wildlife in McDowell that persists despite destruction of their ecosystem. Notice that the fisherman in the video catches and releases the fish because they are not safe to eat due to the water’s contamination. To experience more stories of life in McDowell, visit the documentary here, best viewed using Google Chrome. If you don’t have Chrome or a fast internet connection, you can watch the videos individually here.

Clearly, water quality and even access to water are much bigger problems in West Virginia than we are led to believe by the government’s treatment and the media’s coverage of the most recent chemical spill. In fact, they are more than problems, they are devastations — of resident’s daily lives and health, the local and state economy, and the environment.

I used to become outraged and defensive when outsiders compared West Virginia to a third world country, but I can no longer do that with any conviction. What I can say to people who blame West Virginians, arguing that if West Virginians want better water, a better government, a better economy, they should take responsibility, is that you have obviously never talked to the people who are suffering. They have fought and continue to fight a political system that is beyond corrupt, is beyond reprehensible, is beyond fixing. How they persist despite the constant dismissals by a government that is supposed to protect them, I’ll never know. But this persistence, while noble, should not be an ideal to romanticize. It should be unnecessary. It is our responsibility to make it unnecessary.

What I plan to do over the next few weeks and months is to expose that corruption through those who know it best. If you have information you think is important or would pertain to this in any way, please send it directly to me, Krista Bryson at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com. Please also email if you wish to be interviewed, either on-camera or off, anonymously or not. The more voices we can lend to this story, the more people will see this problem for its true magnitude.

The only chance we have in this fight is to fight together.

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4 comments

  1. Whoa, that is an egregious act on the part of a public water supply utility in McDowell County. I know utilities cut customers’ service off if they’ve not paid the bill, but this sounds illegal. Do you know if this is a private water utility? Was the utility financially broke? And were the utility operators/owners turning off water supply to protest the state a misguided act of Tea Party style activism against regulations, or just a “legitimate” financial hardship cry for help, like a utility-scale furlough?

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