Briana Heaney Published

Residents Along Contaminated Creek Just Want Clean Water

A man sits in a shed holding a mason jar of yellow foggy water. The man is older, with blue eyes, he looks upset.
Residents along the creek have water coming out of their wells that are discolored.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In Pineville, West Virginia, a town of 500, residents filled up the front rows of the county courtroom recently. They came to hear the latest legal update on a battle some have been fighting for generations – securing clean water. Bobby Lee Keen and his wife Patsy attended the hearing. 

“How come they have people living like they’re in a third world country in the United States of America?” asked Bobby Keen.  

The Keens have lived in their house for 20 years, but they have never had clean drinking water. They say the only way they can drink the orange water that comes out of the faucet is by using it to make coffee. 

Keen said the water quality has gotten worse in the last year, and he and his wife have had stomach issues and rashes. Other residents have reported similar symptoms.

And they’re not sure what could be causing it. Regardless, Keen believes one thing to be true. 

“There’s something getting in that water,” he said. 

One of the three places along the creek where water started coming out, and with it, a white stringy slime.

Courtesy of David Stover

A year ago, down the street from the Keens’ house, water started flowing out of the ground in the middle of a field, forming a pool. All that water led to a mold infestation in a nearby property owner’s house. The water had a rotten egg smell and white stringy slime. 

Who Is Responsible?

Just below the surface of that pungent pool is an old mine, previously owned by the now-defunct Pinnacle Mining Company. 

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) tested the water and said that the results indicated that it had been polluted by the abandoned mine. 

Nicolas Zegre, a Mountain Hydrologist at West Virginia University (WVU), said holes like the one in Pineville are known as artesian wells. They naturally push water from aquifers to the surface. 

“When you start mining, the geologic layers, the below ground layers,” Zegre said. “You’re fundamentally changing how water is going to flow through the earth.” 

Now, the pool of smelly, murky water has become a steady stream that flows into Indian Creek. 

The DEP ordered Pinnacle to remedy the situation. When Pinnacle failed to act, it took the company to court. 

There is one major problem here. Pinnacle Mining Company no longer legally exists. As part of its bankruptcy, the company’s assets and liabilities were sold. But to whom? 

“That’s the million dollar question,” Matt Hepler, a scientist with Appalachian Voices, said. 

Court documents show Pinnacle was, at least in part, bought by Bluestone Mining Resources and is owned by Gov. Jim Justice. However, Justice said Bluestone is not responsible.

Governor Jim Justice sits at his desk, gesturing with his right hand. Behind him are the American and West Virginia flags. He is wearing a suit with the top button of his shirt unbuttoned.
Justice answered this question: “Many people along Indian Creek in Wyoming county are sounding the alarms about water contamination possibly coming from a mine that your company purchased, and now owns. As both the governor and the owner of said company is there anything you are planning on doing for these folks so that they can have clean drinking water?” by saying he is not responsible.

Photo Credit: WV Governor’s Office

“I’m all for them having good clean drinking water. But you can’t, you can’t blame me on this one,” Justice said at one of his regular press briefings. “The companies that we have are so distantly involved in this, it’s unbelievable. You know, the DEP is working on the issue.”

Hepler said this fits into a bigger context of the mess that ensues after a coal company goes bankrupt.

“They can’t even figure out, they’re arguing who that new owner is. So they’re not even sure. They’re just pointing fingers at each other,” Hepler said. 

Which raises another big picture question. 

“Who gets left holding the liability when these coal companies go out?” Hepler asked. 

Will The Problem Be Fixed?

In court on April 4, the presiding Wyoming County Judge Derek Swope demanded the companies figure out who is responsible by their next court date in May. 

Outside the courthouse, community members said they felt disappointed. Richard Altizer has been delivering water bottles to some of the residents affected by the water crisis. He and others were hoping the courts would have ordered Bluestone and Alpha Metallurgical Resources to cease all operations until they fixed some of the problems associated with Pinnacle’s abandoned mine.

Residents walk away from court building.
Disappointed residents, some affected by the water crisis, leave the court room.

Photo Credit: Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“If that judge were to order that mines and the gas companies shut down until that is fixed they’d be out there tomorrow fixing it,” Altizer said.  

In their lawsuit, the DEP and the man whose house was flooded, are asking for injunctive relief. They don’t want money for the damaged property or the health issues the water has caused, they only want what has been broken to be fixed. But residents are frustrated by what they say is a year of inaction.

“Now that the mine gets to operate, and the gas wells keep doing what they’re doing, everything’s hunky-dory with the poor people down here. And it’s frustrating,” Altizer said. “But like I said, we still got legal rights.” 

The community is considering a class action lawsuit. 

Richard Altizer has been delivering water bottles to community members paid for through crowd funding sites and city officials.

Photo Credit: Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Is The Water Toxic?

In the meantime, the question looms, is the water safe? 

Grace Dever, an expert on water and its connection to people’s lives, works at WVU’s Center For Resilient Communities. She affirmed what residents have been saying about their everyday use of the water from contaminated wells.  

That can result in huge GI issues, skin rashes,” Dever said. “It can even lead to longer-term things like cancer and things like that.”

Patsy Keen brought photos with her to court in hoping to show someone involved in the legal process what the water was doing to her skin while she was routinely showering in it.

Photo Credit: Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Even though the DEP found the mine was the source of the contamination, it said the water quality passes all mine reclamation standards. But members of the community are skeptical. Terry Fletcher, with the DEP, said the agency is doing everything within its power to take on the issue. 

“I know, there’s been kind of a narrative pushed out there that we’re only testing for one to two, three to four things when we’re testing for dozens and dozens of parameters,” Fletcher said.  

But Hepler from Appalachian Voices said the tests that the department has done so far might not show the true water condition. 

“Now when you test the water column, which is just to say test the water without any of that slime in it,” Hepler said. “The water has been coming back fine, according to West Virginia DEP standards.”

Hapler believes the water does pass mine reclamation standards, as well as Clean Water Act standards, but he said that even still that doesn’t translate to the water being safe.

And there is another set of data that is being ignored, said WVU’s Grace Dever. 

“Community members are experts of their own lives,” Dever said. “And so I think like their lived experience of knowing, like recognizing the smell, noticing the color change in their community, and recognizing also if any rashes are appearing, or if they’re feeling funky, I think that is scientific knowledge. And I think that we should be taking these observations from the community a lot more seriously.”

For Bobby Keen, whose faucet still has orange water coming out, he said he isn’t angry at anyone, he just wants his family and community to have access to safe water. 

**Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said even though the DEP found the mine was the source of the contamination, it said the water quality passes all mine reclamation standards. It has been changed to: Even though the DEP found the mine was the source of what residents believe is contaminated water, it says the water quality passes all state water quality standards.