As 60 Million Americans Avoid Drinking from Tap, ‘Desperate’ Highlights Fight for Clean Water in USA

Moundsville, WV lost its water service over Thanksgiving weekend, exposing the town we made the PBS film about to one of America’s most nagging problems: access to clean drinking water.

As my former Wall Street Journal colleague Kris Maher has been documenting, in his journalism, and in his new book, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia (Scribner, 352p, $28), America has a drinking water problem. From WSJ:

In 2018, roughly 60 million Americans didn’t drink their tap water, according to a study led by a researcher at Pennsylvania State University—a 40% increase compared with four years earlier.

Moundsville got full water service resumed after three days, but a break likely to happen again. There are around 250,000 water main breaks a year in the U.S., from Manhattan skyscrapers to Tennessee trailers.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill includes a big chunk of investment in water lines. Here’s what the White House says:

 Currently, up to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and child care centers lack safe drinking water. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will invest $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water for households, businesses, schools, and child care centers all across the country. From rural towns to struggling cities, the legislation will invest in water infrastructure and eliminate lead service pipes, including in Tribal Nations and disadvantaged communities that need it most.

Clean water advocacy groups have warned that more is needed, and there is a battle between plastics and steel industries for contracts to replace lead pipes, but what’s certain is that this is a problem we should be paying attention to.

The fight for clean water is central to Desperate, which tells the story of coal mining communities in southern West Virginia in the first decade of this century battling Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship, for clean water. 

This small-town West Virginia tale is “a distillation of what’s happened in other parts of the country with small towns,” Maher told me in an interview. “In a lot places I’ve traveled in West Virginia, they always give you bottled water.”

Small towns often have water problems, for all kinds of issues. “You have chemicals, and there’s also farm runoff for pesticides, but also pharmaceuticals are an issue,” said Maher, who covered the water crisis in Flint, Mich. for the Journal. “Pharmaceuticals just come out in the wastewater and they’re not treated, they’re not captured, like at wastewater treatment plants, and they end up in rivers.”

The sprawling coal fields of southern West Virginia are unique, a wild, dramatic, rural place of hollows and tight communities, where mining has seemingly been the only path to prosperity. 

In the 1980s, a coal mining company called Rawl Sales&Processing, controlled by Massey, in Mingo Co., started injecting waste from active mines into abandoned mines which then leaked into the water supply of local towns Williamson and Rawl, and their surrounding areas.

The result, over the following decades, was, allegedly, a catastrophic and criminal poisoning of people’s home water supplies. Creeks flooded with coal slurry. Residents experienced a plague of physical ailments. One boy woke up with pus coming out his penis. 

The town’s, and Maher’s hero, is Kevin Thompson, a hard-charging West Virginia lawyer with a high sense of outrage who in 2003 filed a class action lawsuit against Massey and Rawl, both under the control of a Don Blankenship. In the U.S., where regulations can be light, it often takes a smart lawyer exploiting the legal system to hold companies to account. 

Kevin Thompson

Blankenship, a complicated villain, grew up in Mingo Co., and although his childhood was not particularly destitute, he liked to emphasize his tough roots. “I know what it is to be poor, I know what it is to be rich,” he once said. He was a math genius, with college-level abilities in third grade. 

Blankenship rode his accounting skills to the top of Massey Energy, where he was chairman and CEO until 2010, when the mine at Upper Big Branch exploded killing 29 miners. Blankenship later served a year in prison for his negligence. When he got out, undaunted, he ran for Senate in 2018, and lost. And in 2020 he ran for president as the candidate of the Constitution Party. 

Coal mining came to West Virginia in the middle of the 19th century. Before then, it was “the edge of the frontier for white people, drawing trappers and settlers seeking to build a place to build a rough existence farming, harvesting timber, and distilling whiskey beyond the reach of tax collectors,” Maher writes. By 1920, “the valley reflected the modern industrial world, and the fight was between miners and the companies that profited from their labor.”

In the Matewan massacre of 1920, union-busting detectives and coal miners shot it out in a battle that left seven detectives, two miners, and the mayor, dead. A year later, in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the U.S. Army sent in 26th Infantry Division troops, and military planes patrolled the area, some even dropping homemade bombs. 

Over time, mining became safer. In 1920, there were 784,000 coal miners in the U.S. In the 20 years prior, almost 50,000 had perished in accidents, mostly explosions, a dismal safety record that improved throughout the century.

But environmental disasters persisted. In October, 2000, a Massey impoundment in Kentucky ruptured, dumping over 300 million gallons of coal slurry out the side of a hill, polluting and killing fish over hundreds of miles of streams. In one neighborhood, the sludge went as high as a basketball hoop. Massey called the accident an “act of God.”

At the same time, the coal industry could generate impressive wealth. In the mid-1920s, the town of Willamson approved a five-storey hotel with 116 rooms with private baths, electric elevators, a cut-glass chandelier in the main ballroom and a top-flight restaurant. 

And the region remains haunted by the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the 1870s and 1880s. Blankenship’s mother, it turns out, is a real McCoy. 

When Thomson filed the lawsuit in 2004, he had truth on his side. In the mid-1980s, “the company had pumped more than 20 million gallons of slurry into the mountains in most months, and over time the rate increased to 600 gallons per minute and then 750 gallons per minute.” And the people surveyed by Thomspon had a long list of health problems. Roughly half had bouts of diarrhea. They also suffered from migraines, urinary tract infection, memory problems, muscle tremors, and heart disease. 

Maher told me his book is in part a refutation of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. “It’s about what people are up against in the region,” he says. “J.D. Vance faults people for not working hard or for not pulling themselves up, but I at least I hope that my book shows that there’s just been generations of being kind of under the thumb of the coal industry and you know you’re not starting from the same place as somebody who lives in a city somewhere else.” When your livelihood is tied to a single industry, economic mobility is limited, he said. 

That’s going to have to change, because coal is in decline. In 2004, when the lawsuit was filed, coal generated around half of electricity in the U.S. In 2020, that number was around 20%. 

Williamson, WV, by Kris Maher

I posed the question to Maher about what comes next for communities fading out of the coal business. After all, on dozens of trips to southern West Virginia, he’s come to care about the people he writes about. He pointed to a piece he wrote recently about a lavender farm in Boone Co, West Virginia. “The hope is to not rely just on one industry,” he said.

For Moundsville, as in Manhattan, one thing Americans hope they’ll always be able rely on will be clean drinking water.

John W. Miller

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