Part II: Is There Something in the Water, Southern W.Va.?

Jan 15, 2015

Discharge pipe.
Credit US Department of Agriculture

For all of the concerns about water compromised by natural and industrial sources (and the cancer, decay, infection, and disease that can come with that contamination), director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, Paul Ziemkiewicz said the biggest threat in water supplies in southern West Virginia (and many areas in the state) by a long shot is raw sewage.


“Any contaminant you can think of pales in comparison to raw, untreated sewage,” Ziemkiewicz said.

We’re talking about bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can cause short-term problems like diarrhea, eye infections, respiratory infection, and long-term problems like cancer, Dementia, and diabetes. And there are growing concerns about potential illnesses or effects from exposure to pharmaceuticals and synthetic hormones introduced through sewage.

Straight Pipes

Maggie Nevi is the Project Coordinator for the Waste Water Treatment Coalition in McDowell County. The coalition’s main objective is to end the practice of straight piping:

“Right now 67 percent of the county has no form of waste water treatment whatsoever. And they do what’s called straight-piping which is exactly what it sounds like.”

Straight Piping: some PVC pipe runs every drain (sink, shower, tub, washing machine, and toilet) straight into the creek.

Tourism?

The idea behind Waste Water Treatment Coalition in McDowell County is to improve the health and well-being of the people who live in McDowell County of course, but also for people who want to visit the area. Nevi explains how the county has benefited from state investments, (with the Hatfield and McCoy Trail system, for example) but Nevi says right now, ATV enthusiasts that visit should be concerned. 

“They pretty-much could be riding through raw sewage, depending on the area that they are in,” Nevi said.

Nevi worries about eye, ear, nose, and throat infections, especially for ATV riders who splash through creeks without helmets or goggles.

Wetlands

The Waste Water Treatment Coalition is taking steps to mitigate some areas of concern. In the small community Ashland, for example, they established a wetland which absorbs and cleans up a lot of crap.

Nevi explains, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s acceptable rate for fecal coliform per mL of water is 200 parts per mL. In Ashland, before the wetland, the organization was finding 200,000 parts per mL. (Fecal coliform is an indicator that sewage is present in water...)

Public Health Crisis

At the WV Water Research Institute, Director Paul Ziemkiewicz says 67 percent of homes in McDowell County not having a sewage treatment... is a public health crisis.

He explains that many of the pathogens you might encounter can be killed off by boiling water but…

“You don’t boil water to take a shower. The kids play in the little plastic pool out back. Are you boiling all that water, too? People drink this stuff they get in contact with it, they’re washing their faces with it,” Ziemkiewicz said, “and that’s bad stuff!”

In fact, whenever Ziemkiewicz or any researchers from his organization study water in the area, he requires inoculations for Hepatitis B and A.

Water Studies

Meanwhile water studies are underway. West Virginia University’s School of Public Health is currently studying water samples from throughout southern West Virginia in an effort to grasp a finer understanding of chronic and acute problems the community faces with water supply issues.

But to be clear—these problems might exist in southern West Virginia to a larger degree, but raw sewage, naturally occurring manganese, and industrial impairment are problems that exist all through the state and region.

Public health expert from WVU, Michael McCawley said it falls on not only citizens within southern counties to be educated about risks and searching and moving toward solutions, but all citizens throughout this state, and the region.