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

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Jessica Lilly
Elkhorn Public Servcie Company building housed the company that provided water to residents. It's no longer in use.

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.

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Credit WVPB

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Credit Jessica Lilly
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.

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.

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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. 

Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program.
Suzanne Higgins is Executive Producer for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, headquartered at WSWP-TV in Beckley, and is currently the producer, host, and managing editor of The Legislature Today, the network’s nightly news program covering the West Virginia Legislature. When lawmakers are not in session, Suzanne works on multiple video projects, including her role as lead video producer for the network's Recovery project – a focus on the state's Opioid crisis with an emphasis on the many issues surrounding life in recovery.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.