Coal’s Legacy in Appalachia: As Mining Companies Close, Water Systems Fail

The coal industry has done a lot for central Appalachia. It’s created jobs, and it’s helped many families afford college. Coal has also created a  very strong sense of pride. But as jobs in the coal industry have declined, so have the opportunities in Central  Appalachia. On this episode of Inside Appalachia, we explore one of the legacies of of the industry: crumbling water infrastructure.

In communities across the coal fields of Appalachia, people know not to use the water. On this show, we first go to Martin County, Kentucky, where residents brush their teeth with bottled water. Customers of the Martin County Water District have been receiving notices since 2002 telling them that high levels of certain contaminants have rendered their water unsafe to drink.

Credit WVPB

Charles "Pat" Parker is considered the "grandfather" of water systems in the Wyoming County. He's helped bring safe drinking water to people across southern W.Va. many times in the middle of the night, as a volunteer.
Credit Jessica Lilly

We talked with some of the remaining residents of once-bustling company towns to find out how they deal with water that often isn’t available and that they suspect is contaminated. One woman in Garwood, West Virginia, regularly delivers packs of donated bottled water to her neighbors because her water system is “intractable,” an Environmental Protection Agency label that means that no one is responsible for the upkeep of the system.

And a 17-year-old in Brenton, West Virginia, tries to cheer his community up through motivational vlogs - even though inconsistent and contaminated water makes it difficult for his mother to run her hair salon.

We also chat with Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, who tells us about the risks of drinking untreated water, as well as the water operators who are on the ground trying to make the best out of a low-resource situation.

What’s In a Name?

Do you know which state and county the Coal River starts in, and where it ends up? Listen and find out!

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. This week’s episode was produced with the help of  WMMT in Whitesburg Kentucky and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Special thanks to David Foster and the West Virginia Rural Water Association. Music in today’s show was provided by Lobo Loco, Montana Skies, and Doctor Turtle. Suzanne Higgins edited our show this week. Patrick Stephens is our audio mixer. Jesse Wright is our executive producer.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included a map of intractable water systems with mislabeled states. It has since been taken down.