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KEYSTONE, W.Va. – Donna Dickerson’s heart sank every time she woke up, turned on the faucet in her RV and heard the pipes gurgling.
Sometimes it happened on a day when her mother, who is 86 years old and has dementia, had a doctor’s appointment and needed a bath. Sometimes it was Thanksgiving or Christmas when family came to visit.
“It was disgusting, literally a headache, and it messed with everything,” she said. “Out of nowhere the water would have disappeared and we would have no idea when it would be back.”
It’s hard enough caring for someone with dementia. Caring for someone with dementia without clean water takes the stress to another level.
While water system outages in major cities draw attention, it’s small communities like Keystone, West Virginia that are more often left vulnerable by destitute and unmaintained water utilities. Small water utilities average about twice as many health breaches as large cities, according to an analysis of thousands of records over the past three years by The Associated Press. In that time, small water utilities have violated the health standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act nearly 9,000 times. They were also frequently the worst performers. Federal law allows authorities to force changes to water utilities, but they rarely do so, even for the worst offenders.
“We’re talking about things that we’ve known about drinking water for a century and that we want everyone in this country to be able to afford,” said Chad Seidel, president of a water consultancy.
The worst water providers can have problems so severe that residents are told they cannot drink the water. For a full 10 years, Dickerson and 175 neighbors in the tiny, mostly black community of Keystone had to boil all their water. This length of time is almost unknown – such warnings usually last only days. The requirement added gas and electricity costs on top of the water bill. In addition, residents were losing water for days or even weeks without warning.
A coal company had built the original system but has since abandoned it, blaming no one.
When Dickerson ran out of water, she would drive the twisting mountain roads of the dying county to the Tafel or buy water from Dollar General—one of the only shops in the area. She would haul containers home and heat pots on the stove to fill the tub for her mother to bathe. In both bathrooms of her RV, she stored water in containers for toilet flushing. Dishes and laundry would pile up.
There was the cost of gas, the cost of five gallon water jugs, the cost of washing clothes at the laundromat. There was also an emotional price.
“This is killing you,” she said. “You have to learn to survive.”
When President Gerald Ford signed the landmark Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, he said “nothing is more important to the life of every American” than clean drinking water, and also mentioned clean air and clean food. The law protected Americans from 22 pollutants, including arsenic. Almost half a century later, evolving science has expanded coverage to more than 90 substances, while tightening standards in the process.
The wonder is that most water systems keep up – 94% meet health standards.
But Dickerson lives in one of the places that haven’t, the AP found, struggling and repeatedly failing.
After years of trouble, Keystone was finally hooked up to a new water system last December, the McDowell Public Service District, which is focused on modernizing systems in coal communities. Deteriorating water mains were replaced, and a nonprofit organization called DigDeep helped fund homes to connect to the new infrastructure.
When a water utility is not treating water properly or has high levels of contaminants, states should enforce the law. They usually give communities time to fix problems, and often they do. But if there is intransigence or delay, the state can escalate and impose fines. In many cities this is not the case.
“Putting them a penalty isn’t going to get you anywhere. It will only make things worse in most cases,” said Heather Himmelberger, director of the Southwest Environmental Finance Center at the University of New Mexico. The cities cannot afford the work.
About 3% of all systems analyzed by the AP ended up on the EPA’s enforcement priority list last year. Even worse are the 450 utilities that have made the list for at least five of the last 10 years. Four million Americans rely on these systems.
Regulators rarely step in to force change.
“Regulators have mostly moral appeal and they’re going to point the finger,” said Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on public policy and water.
The EPA says the vast majority of systems provide clean water, and for those struggling, the agency has stepped up technical assistance, inspections, and enforcement. According to Carol King, an attorney in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, these efforts have reduced the number of systems that consistently commit health violations.
Teodoro said that originally water systems emerged as communities did, resulting in a fragmented drinking water sector dominated by small providers. School districts in America formed in much the same way, but went through a period of consolidation. This has happened far less with municipal water systems.
According to a survey, the main concern of the sector is infrastructure financing.
Josiah Cox has a particular idea of which cities end up in the worst trouble. He worked on water problems for years and found that many small utility companies didn’t save money on maintenance or had problems when experienced workers left the company.
So he started a company, Central States Water Resources, bought up troubled utilities, upgraded and billed customers over time.
Terre Du Lac, Missouri was one. It is a private 5,200-acre community of around 1,200 homes nestled around 16 lakes. It advertises a laid-back vibe an hour south of St. Louis, where people come to golf or water-ski.
But the water tower was covered with rust. The community’s drinking water well produced naturally occurring radioactive material that can cause cancer.
He’s seen a lot: bird droppings in drinking water and a place that treated its water with chlorine tablets meant for swimming pools.
“They start what we call the death spiral of these utilities” when they don’t have the resources to pay for what regulators are asking, Cox said.
Michael Tilley, who was criticized by regulators for how he ran the Terre Du Lac system before Cox took over, has lived most of his life in the community and knows many residents. He said he feels an obligation to serve them well but has repeatedly encountered hurdles in finding funding.
“I think if I had any claim to fame it was just to keep the prices down and try to run this thing at a minimum,” he said. “I often look back and that was my problem.”
Recruitment of professionals to operate small water systems is also an important issue. According to surveys, the predominantly white, male workforce is aging.
Earlier in his career, Tim Wilson, a water project manager, spent time overseeing the treatment plant in Wahpeton, Iowa, a community of just over 400 people that’s growing as vacationers flock here in the summer.
Small, rural communities find it “ridiculously difficult” to recruit certified operators, he said. Then, once trained, they can be lured elsewhere with better pay and benefits.
The job demands can also be overwhelming. At Wahpeton, Wilson was the only employee in charge of the sewage treatment plant. He acted simultaneously as a snowplow driver and zone expert at ward council meetings. His crowning glory, he says, was convincing officers to hire someone else to help. It took six years.
Nearly 1,000 miles south in Ferriday, Louisiana, staffing is a problem, but the water has failed people in every way that matters.
You know your water is in trouble when it’s being distributed by the National Guard. This is where Ferriday residents brought their bottles and buckets for four months in 1999.
“I haven’t drunk the water since then,” said Jameel Green, 42, who has lived in the city for most of his life. He now makes sure his two girls, ages 16 and 8, don’t drink Ferriday water either, even if it costs $60 a month.
He held up a garden hose caked with a white film of water.
That was not always so. In the 1950s and 1960s Ferriday had a vibrant music scene – Jerry Lee Lewis was a local and acts like BB King stopped by. About 5,200 people called Ferriday home. There are now about 40% fewer people and Ferriday is a mostly black community. The Delta Music Museum, which celebrates the city’s place in music history, is surrounded by mostly empty shops.
In 2016 the water situation should change. The US Department of Agriculture helped fund a new processing plant, which was commissioned.
But when the company that built the facility moved away after completion, operators were left with little training on how to operate it. According to Rev. James Smith Sr., who was brought in to help with the problem, staff had trouble finding the right mix of chemicals.
“That’s the big problem. Everyone’s still doing trial and error,” Smith said.
Ferriday’s water problems represented “a system in total collapse,” according to Sri Vedachalam, director of water justice and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc, who reviewed public files.
Water disinfection in Ferriday leaves too high concentrations of carcinogens. Because the state failed to fix its problems, the state fined Ferriday $455,265 in November 2021.
Smith said the water is now significantly improved. It is tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods.
However, Ferriday never acted on the fine, and the Louisiana Health Department is threatening to ask a judge to impose a schedule for improvements and forced payments.
Without much more money and more aggressive interventions in the worst places, many Americans will continue to endure an expensive search for potable water, or drink water that is potentially unsafe, experts say.
“In my view, this is a desperate problem,” Teodoro said.
Phillis reported from Ferriday, Louisiana and St. Louis. Fassett reported from Seattle.
The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for reporting on water and environmental policies. The AP is solely responsible for all content. All of AP’s environmental reporting is available at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment