McDowell County residents abandoned fetching water after decades without a basic human right

MCDOWELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) — Safe drinking water is a basic human right, but in McDowell County, some people have not had access to clean water for decades.

“I feel like we’re being left behind,” said Sonny Barton, a McDowell County resident who has been without running water for more than 40 years. “They always promise, but doing it is another matter. They can always promise you something, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get it.”

Barton’s home on Whitaker Ridge looks like many in rural Appalachia, but it lacks running water.

“I’m not getting off this mountain unless they come to pick me up. This is my home. I’m not going anywhere,” Barton said.

Water pipes terminate about three miles from Barton’s home, so getting water into his home is a long, grueling process he’s been on for four decades.

“I’d estimate 30 to 35 minutes for a transport, or maybe a little more,” Barton said.

Each week, Barton loads two 300-gallon tanks and water jugs into the back of his pickup truck and drives down the mountain to fetch water for his family.

“Drinking water comes from down the road, and then we get our other water from the creek,” Barton said.

Its first stop is drinking water, which comes from a spring in an old coal mine 300 feet up a hill.

“You don’t have to treat it. It tastes just as good as the water that comes out of the bottle,” Barton said.

To get water that the family needs for everything else, Barton pumps water from the creek.

It’s a process Barton turned into a science, including running a hose down the stream and using a gasoline-powered pump to pump the water into his tanks.

It takes about 10 minutes for the tanks to fill up, and then Barton goes back to his house to unload.

Barton empties the tanks into a cistern he built at his home.

“It holds 3,300 gallons. I don’t let it dry out except in the summer when we clear it out,” Barton said.

He treats the water with bleach to kill bacteria like E-Coli.

Barton also has a pressure tank that sends water to the house.

“We’ve got a water heater … you name it, we’ve got everything,” Barton said.

Barton does this three or four times a day and he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be physically able to do it.

“That’s up to the gentleman up there, not me. I’ll drag it until I can’t anymore if need be,” he said.

In December, US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan came to McDowell County to speak about decades of water struggles residents like Barton are facing.

“It’s really eye-opening for me to see the level of resilience and optimism. The people of McDowell County haven’t given up,” Regan said.

One solution locals are working on is hydropanels at the Five Loaves Two Fishes Food Bank.

They are powered by solar panels and draw moisture from the air into water tanks.

The panels are part of a pilot program to see if this process could work in rural Appalachia.

“They will produce enough drinking water for these people if we put them on their roofs,” said Bob McKinney of the nonprofit organization Dig Deep. “That would be a solution for someone like Sonny.”

These panels are still in the development phase trying to overcome weather and maintenance challenges before the panels can go to individual families.

“Nobody in McDowell County or West Virginia is looking for a handout. They’re looking for an opportunity to demonstrate that they have the solutions on the ground,” Regan said.

As for long-term solutions like new infrastructure, Regan says federal funds are on the way.

West Virginia gets $83 million from bipartisan infrastructure bill. This money is used exclusively for water projects across the state.

“We started talking about how to build competitive applications for these resources. As far as I know, McDowell County has two to three projects at the highest qualification level for that $83 million,” Regan said. “Eventually, later this year, McDowell County should have access to some of these resources to solve some of these problems that have existed for decades.”

The EPA and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection tell WSAZ that $1.5 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill will go toward the Iaeger project. The draft for the project is nearing completion and is number one on the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF) Intended Use Plan.

This project will provide services to approximately 118 potential customers (295 people).

The total cost of the Iaeger project is $7.9 million. The remaining funds are provided by the Federal Community Development Block Grant Program, the State Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the US Department of Agriculture. The WVDEP Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization (AMLER) program is also providing $1 million to the Iaeger project.

According to WVDEP, the Iaeger project is the only wastewater infrastructure project funded by the bipartisan infrastructure statute in McDowell County.

They say there are projects in the City of Gary and the City of Davy that are currently in the early stages of the funding process, but it has not been determined whether these projects will be funded through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act or the CWSRF’s grassroots funding.

According to WVDEP, the following projects are in the works in McDowell County:

CWSRF, along with WVDEP’s AMLER program, is co-funding a sewer rehabilitation project for the town of Bradshaw, McDowell County. The design for this project is complete. The CWSRF is providing $800,000 and the AMLER program is providing $1.5 million.

The total cost of the Bradshaw project is $6.2 million.

WVDEP’s AMLER program is also providing partial funding for a sewerage project in the Ashland/Crumpler area of ​​McDowell County.

Once the design phase has been completed and all necessary approvals have been received from the funding bodies and other appropriate bodies for a specific project, the project will be put out to tender.

The Coalwood project is approximately 75 percent complete. Most of the infrastructure is in place. However, supply chain issues have delayed the remaining equipment.

This project is building a new collection system and packing facility for 60 customers along Route 16 in Coalwood.

The McDowell County PSD says no projects are currently in the works to bring water to Barton’s home.

PSD officials say the funding agencies look at the cost per person for projects, and it would cost too much to run lines up the hill to Barton’s home, and they don’t have those resources.

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