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While the chemical spill in Charleston left more than 300,000 without usable water, it’s a problem that folks in the coalfields deal with on a regular basis.
Mountainous regions like southern West Virginia have an abundance of water, but the terrain along with aging infrastructure create challenges, just as it has for decades.
Many of the current water systems in place today in the coalfields were installed in the early 1900’s by coal companies. The coal operators, jobs, and most people left the area, leaving remnants behind of a once bustling economy. Remnants like some beautiful buildings, coal tipples …and water systems.
For some communities a boil water advisory is a way of life … like in Keystone in McDowell County where residents have been on advisory since 2010. Neighboring sister city of Northfork has been on a boil water advisory since 2013. The water systems are currently maintained and operated by individual towns, but the McDowell County Public Service District is planning projects to take on those responsibilities.
Elkhorn Water Project
Just this past year, a project with several phases started that is expected to bring relief to the region.
Phase I of the “Elkhorn Water Project” will bring a new water system to Elkhorn, Maybeurry and Switchback. Phase II will replace systems in Elkhorn, Keystone and Northfork and Phase III will upgrade systems in Landgraff, Tidewater, Divian, Kimball.
Phase I broke ground this year and is expected to be complete in June. Executive Director of the McDowell County PSD Mavis Brewster says she’s happy with the progress. She says the second phase has not yet been funded. That’s where Betty Younger lives.
Betty Younger: Times have Changed
A coal miner’s daughter, Betty Younger grew up in McDowell County and remembers a very different community during the 1950’s. Younger sits on her front porch which sits close to route 5–a road busy with coal trucks. She reminisces about her days in the Kyle coal camp.
Like so many coal-dependent communities, McDowell has suffered the boom and bust of the industry, and the sharp population decline that comes with it. In the 1950’s there were more than 100-thousand people. Today less 20-thousand remain in the county.
“This part of McDowell County is… I mean there’s nothing here,” Younger said.
Younger has lived in her Elkhorn homes for about six years. There have been so many water issues… she just assumes not to drink it, rarely uses it for cooking, and doesn’t even count on regular access.
“You never know when you’re going to have water,” Younger said.
Phase II will also replace systems in Northfork and Keystone. Folks in Keystone have been on a boil water advisory since 2010, while Northfork has been under an advisory since 2013.
When all three phases are complete, the project will replace the system that Younger and other residents currently rely on. Phase I will replace a leaky, rusty, tank that is believed to date back to the 1940’s when it was set up by coal companies.