WELCH, W.Va. (AP) — Sonny Barton had a lot to say about living without clean drinking water when the nation’s top environmental regulator came to his small West Virginia community Tuesday.
The creek where he collects water for bathing, cooking and flushing toilets is littered with bottles and other trash, and he's long suspected it wasn't safe. Lab testing last month confirmed that, finding the waterway is contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria.
But after 40 years living without running water at home three miles from the nearest main, he said he doesn’t have any choice but to keep using it. Each month Barton spends multiple days hauling it to his home in 600-gallon jugs, and for drinking water he goes to a different stream on the mountain.
“I’m just used to it,” the 64-year-old retired logger said, adding that nine other families in his small community are in a similar situation. “I don’t know any other way to do it now.”
Barton and other residents of southern West Virginia's McDowell County shared their stories of the challenges of living without access to safe drinking water and wastewater with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday. Sitting in their longtime homes, they told of the physical strain of hauling water day after day, health concerns and frustrations at feeling left behind for far too long.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan's visit to the coal county, one of the nation's poorest, was the latest stop on the Journey to Justice tour he launched last year, with winter visits to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. This past summer, he went to Puerto Rico.
Regan, the first Black man to serve as the EPA's top official, said the tour focuses on starting conversations and rebuilding trust with historically disadvantaged sectors — low-income populations, communities of color, tribal lands and others — that “have been struggling for quite some time but haven’t had a seat at the table."
“All we’ve had was mountain water — it comes out off the mountain, comes out the mines,” said 77-year-old Rosa Runyon, who lives on a narrow dirt road in Premier. Her husband, who worked in the mines and drove coal trucks, died of cancer a little over a year ago, and multiple neighbors in her small community have also died of the disease.
“Could that be related?” she asked Regan as the two chatted in her living room, its walls covered in family photos.
Regan responded that it's long past time for the federal government to step in with real solutions.
“It’s important for me to say that I think you all know we believe it’s unacceptable,” Regan said.
Residents also shared how their water woes have brought the community together to find creative solutions. Barton said he is more hopeful than ever before that he will get access to clean water at home in his lifetime.
At Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank, where the most requested item is water, not food, Regan was shown a row of sun-powered hydropanels, which extract clean water from the air. The pantry acquired them three years ago with support from the Appalachian Water Project, an initiative of California-based DigDeep, a nonprofit that employs locals to work at closing the water gap in McDowell and surrounding counties.
Linda McKinney, who runs the food bank, said she would love to find a way to install such panels on homes, but the group has run into barriers applying for federal support.
“It's difficult because it's outside of the walls of what they're used to funding,” she said, adding that other remedies considered have included using water kiosks and fire hydrants to get clean water to residents.
Regan said the Journey to Justice tour is also about learning from people about their difficulties so the government can provide support, including using funding from packages like the bipartisan infrastructure act. He said his team has visited McDowell County at least six times this year, and “communities know their issues best.”
“There's a lot of competence in this county. There's a lot of resilience in this county," Regan said. "Really, our job is to connect the resources to the people on the ground to get some of these projects moving sooner rather than later.”
Regan also toured a water treatment plant owned by the McDowell Public Service District, which has been consolidating and upgrading systems in coal communities and so far connected roughly 400 homes with clean, reliable water. The nonprofit has also partnered with DigDeep to to help pay for residential connections.
One place connected in the last year is Keystone, a small, majority-Black community where residents have had to boil their water for a decade. A coal company built the original water system, and after it left, no one took charge and the lines deteriorated.
Runyon said that after her husband died, she was forced to consider moving away because of her water issues. It would have been painful to leave behind neighbors, relatives and so many memories, but she felt she had no choice.
Then, after 24 years in the home, she finally got access to clean water for the first time in October thanks to the McDowell County Service District.
“I don't know what I would have done," Runyon said. "But after I got water, I'm going to stay here. I'm comfortable here.”