The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 18, 2013

Water woes plague area community

Residents seeking funds for line extension

RAMSEY — As debates on critical issues like education and prison reform unfold at the state Legislature this year, an even more fundamental issue plagues some Fayette County residents — lack of access to clean water.

“You hear people complain about their water bill. I’d love to have a water bill,” says Bev Walkup, who lives on Saturday Road in the New Haven district.

When it comes to building a waterline extension to serve her community, Walkup says she’s fed up with being overlooked.

“Sometimes I feel like one of those little old ladies in Africa who walks to get their drinking water, only I get in my car and drive to Foodland two or three times a month,” she says.

She and her neighbors haul water in water buffalos and barrels because they live a mile from the furthest reaches of the New Haven Public Service District’s water lines.

Residents use well water for washing but don’t dare drink it. The water was fine until the 1980s, when nearby gas wells and strip mines spoiled it, says Walkup, although she has no conclusive proof.

She says two water testing teams — one from Duke University — have told residents that the well water is unsuitable for drinking, due in part to high manganese and lead content.

And Walkup believes the water quality has become a health issue for her community.

“In every house almost there’s someone who’s sick,” she says.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, on the other hand, said the water is fine.

Because the mining happened after federal environmental legislation went into place, the area does not qualify for funding from the Abandoned Mine Lands Program for a water extension. Many neighboring water projects in Fayette County and southern West Virginia have been funded that way.

Walkup feels she’s been overlooked by those with the ability to help her. She has written letters to West Virginia American Water (WVAW), attended New Haven PSD meetings, and discussed the issue with her county commission.

Next Friday, the commission will have a public hearing related to a Small Cities Block Grant application that would fund a water project in Armstrong Creek. Walkup plans to attend and advocate for her community.

“We keep getting put on the back burner. ... We were kind of told just to wait our turn. Well, it looks like somebody else is getting our turn. I understand if they need help in Armstrong Creek worse than we do. But if you’re not standing up hollering all the time, you get ignored,” she says.

The New Haven PSD has received about $10 million for water projects in the last 10 years, according to board chairman Kenny Hayes. The Small Cities Block Grant program has provided much of that funding.

The group started off with an original $20 million plan to provide access to a large area, but they have instead been biting off smaller chunks and tackling one area at a time.

Hayes says the PSD prioritizes extension projects on a cost-per-customer basis so they are not accused of favoritism.

Many areas with a low population density and a high dollar-per-customer ratio remain to be serviced. These include Hawver Road, Gwinn Road, Horseshoe Creek Road, and the area north of Miller Ridge Road.

 

In November 2010, West Virginia American Water sent a letter to the New Haven PSD stating that they would be participating in their partnership with the public entity at a “lower rate of investment” than in previous times.

They cited a Public Service Commission case that denied a rate increase for the company and ordered them to cut costs.

The company sent similar letters to its other “public partners” — generally PSDs that leveraged public funds to pay for water projects while simultaneously turning over their operation and maintenance to WVAW. The water company gained new customers and new billings in the deal.

WVAW says that the “public-private partnerships” have led to a combined investment of more than $550 million, benefiting more than 150,000 people statewide.

But others say they have left local water districts high and dry.

“While densities were good enough to be profitable, they were happy to have this relationship. Now that we’re in the outer reaches of Fayette County, the distance between customers is greater, the exposure to problems is greater, and West Virginia American Water has decided the risk and reward are no longer in their favor,” Fayette County Resource Coordinator Dave Pollard told the county commission in June 2012.

Soon after, the public partners, including New Haven, collectively filed a complaint with the Public Service Commission over what they say was the water company’s dissolution of the partnership agreement.  

Without WVAW, they say they are left with limited ability to maintain their systems or take on new projects.

“We’ve been in a quagmire for two years,” says Hayes.

Others say the PSDs have been placed in the middle of a match between a private water company and the Public Service Commission, which denied the company’s rate increase.

The two parties are reportedly in negotiations and have expressed some optimism in PSC filings that a settlement can be reached, on current and future water projects.

“For the past several months, West Virginia American Water has made considerable strides to positively impact this situation. In fact, we have committed to multiple public partners — including New Haven PSD — that we will continue to discuss future project approaches and will work cooperatively toward a solution with regard to the company’s financial participation in such projects,” says WVAW spokesperson Laura Jordan.

The water company is moving forward with supporting water projects that have already been funded from outside sources. In Fayette County, that includes the Spy Rock Road and Edmond Road Project, which will lay 15,330 feet of water line and add a booster station to serve 14 new customers. Another status update in the case is due April 1.

 

So where does that leave Walkup and her neighbors on Saturday Road? The prospect for future public funding does not look altogether promising.

Hayes says that recently, funds have become more competitive and “basically dried up.” This sentiment is confirmed by others who seek to expand water infrastructure in the state.

And public-private partnerships only work if there is public funding available.

“West Virginia American Water has partnered with New Haven PSD to extend water along Saturday Road in the past. However, this further extension, like all others, is in competition for state funding with similar projects throughout the state,” says Jordan.

A lot, in the end, comes down to population densities.

“Funding agencies compare projects on a cost-per-customer basis. Projects that have a lower cost-per-customer amount have better chances of receiving funding than those with higher costs,” says Jordan.

Walkup’s view is simple and clear, just like the resource she hopes to secure for her community.

“We just want water,” she says. “I don’t think people realize that there are still people in this country who don’t have water.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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