Drinking Water from an Abandoned Mine? Really.

Feb 17, 2017

It’s been happening for years - water systems are slowly coming to a breaking point. The next episode of Inside Appalachia explores one legacy of the coal mining industry - crumbling water infrastructure.

In Garwood, West Virginia, One Woman Fights for Water

Jessica Griffith has lived in Garwood, West Virginia, in Wyoming County, her whole life. She’s a customer of Garwood Community Water, which draws its water from an abandoned mine. This past fall, she said, the water situation was the worst it's ever been.

“You never know what you’re going to wake up to,” she said. “Some days there might be a little bit of water, enough for you to wash a couple of dishes. Some days you might not have anything at all.”

Jessica Griffith holds her one-year-old son in her kitchen sink in Garwood, W.Va.
Credit Jessica Lilly

Just the previous day, for a few hours, Griffith said, nothing but air came out of the faucets at her house. She regularly delivers packs of donated bottled water to her neighbors. Tall stacks of water bottles - a couple of month’s worth, she estimated - remained in her driveway. In her household, bottled water isn't just for drinking - it's for brushing your teeth, for cooking and for bathing. 

“We have to go to the store and get the gallon jugs. And to rinse - to get our toothbrushes wet - we have to pour some water on it,” said Dacoda Cooper, Griffith’s 12-year-old son.

Until October of 2015, Griffith said, Garwood residents were given a water bill for about $17 a month.

“Everybody just up and quit. There was no warning, no nothing. The bills just stopped for no reason, just everybody quit and that was it,” she said. “Nobody handed it over to anybody else to see if anybody wanted to take it over to see if anyone else could fix the problem. It was just done.”

In 2014, Garwood Community Water stopped filing formal reports to the Public Service Commission, which most recently gave the water system a $750 fine for failing to report in 2016, in addition to $75 for each month the reports continue to be late. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources also said that Garwood Community Water stopped filing water quality reports after 2014. In April 2015, the DHHR issued a boil water notice to consumers of Garwood Community Water, which means that there could be contaminants in their water. It hasn't been lifted since.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting attempted to contact Garwood Community Water at its latest number on file at the Public Service Commission. The number is no longer affiliated with Garwood Community Water.

How could this happen?

The Garwood water system is what the Environmental Protection Agency calls an “intractable system,” which means it has no administrative contact and no one to test the water for contaminants or submit the proper paperwork.

According to the DHHR, eight out of 911 total water systems in West Virginia are intractable. All of them are in southern West Virginia, and four of them are in Wyoming County.

Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting

  • Coal Mountain Water – Wyoming County (Intractable since before 2000)
  • Pierpoint Water – Wyoming County (Intractable since before 2000)
  • Herndon Heights Community Water – Wyoming County (Intractable since 2008)
  • Garwood Community Water – Wyoming County (Intractable since 2015)
  • Hiawatha Community Water – Mercer County (Intractable since before 2000)
  • Kanawha Falls Community – Fayette County (Intractable since 2007)
  • Otoole Water – McDowell County (Unknown)
  • Prenter – Boone County (Intractable since 2007)

William Baisden, the general manager with the Logan County Public Service District, said Garwood Community Water’s  problem began two years ago with a drought. To make things worse, the water operator responsible for the system was seriously injured sometime this past fall.

That left Garwood without anyone to maintain the system. The system worked without major issues until fall last year, when the town went weeks without water.  

Twelve-year-old Dakoda Cooper lives in Garwood, W.Va.
Credit Jessica Lilly

Will the Garwood system be fixed?

The neighboring town of Alpoca has experienced fewer water-related issues ever since the Eastern Wyoming County Public Service District, which is currently being overseen by the Logan County Public Service District, began helping with a new project to replace the water lines. It was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a Small Cities Block Grant and the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. Engineers expect to have enough money left over to fund water line extensions to parts of Garwood, but they won’t know for sure until spring this year.

“You know, I think a lot of it’s just where we are a such small town, we kind of get overlooked,” Griffith said. “You live in a place that don’t have a store and it don’t have a post office and people tend to forget about you, even though we are a community. We work together and we do stuff. It’s not fair that we get overlooked, not just from other places but from our government. We’ve reached out out to them and we haven’t gotten any help.”

In the meantime, Griffith has made calls to elected officials and even wrote a letter to President Donald Trump.

She finally found the answers she was looking for at the Logan County Public Service District.

In a meeting with the Logan County Public Service District in December 2016, the District pointed out that they had approached the community about working to find a solution a few years ago - with little success.

This time, they  advised Griffith  and the community to elect leaders to spearhead the effort to “hook up” the Garwood system to the Eastern Wyoming County and Logan County Public Service Districts. Hooking up will mean that the residents of Garwood will have to start paying a water bill again. Griffith was elected president.

The project is expected to move forward this summer.  

What are the risks of using mine water as a drinking source?

Every water system in the country is required under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act to test for certain contaminants. Garwood stopped reporting test results to the DHHR after 2014. The DHHR said that typically, systems that fail to report are issued a series of violations. But because no one is responsible for Garwood Community Water, there is no one to penalize. The best the DHHR could do, a spokesman said, was issue boil water notices.

“To discontinue a public water system would create problems with sanitation and in some instances fire protection. This would be a very difficult action to take with a community,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “As these communities remain a public water system, one method of attempting to protect public health is to continue issuing boil water notices to these areas.”

Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, took a look at a list provided by the DHHR of test results reported by Garwood Community Water between 2000 and 2014. He  said that the water between those years actually seemed to be of decent quality.

“For example, THM - the numbers I am seeing here are less than 5 micrograms per liter. The Safe Drinking Water Act level is 80. So these numbers are well below that,” he said.

Ziemkiewicz is familiar with mine water from southern West Virginia. He said he typically looks for iron, manganese, selenium and sulfate in water that comes from a mine. For water systems with poor infrastructure, he also looks for coliform, a bacteria that originates from an animal or a human’s gut. In 2000, 2007 and 2008, Garwood Community Water reported coliform at levels that exceeded EPA standards.

“It can come from humans, or animals,” Ziemkiewicz said. “But generally when you see coliforms, you wonder about sewage.”

Boiling water will kill off any coliform. And because the water hasn’t been tested since 2014, residents remain on a boil water advisory.

But wait … there’s more

This report is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia. You can hear more about these systems by listening to the audio on this page or subscribing to the podcast. Inside Appalachia airs on West Virginia Public Broadcasting Sundays at 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.