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A Tale of Two Water Systems

by Carl Hoffman

I never had enough water to take a shower," says Roger Barnett. A retired coal miner and pastor of the Amonate, Virginia, Freewill Baptist Church, Barnett is standing in the community's small post office. Outside, the occasional coal truck rumbles down Amonate's narrow main street, and steep, snow-covered mountains rise behind a single row of frame houses on either side of the street. "That water used to turn my hair yellow," says Barnett, tipping his black baseball cap and showing off his shock of white hair, "and my church didn't have any water at all for two years."

A community of 70 homes, Amonate straddles the Tazewell County, Virginia–McDowell County, West Virginia, line. A former coal camp, its water system was privately built and maintained by the local coal company. As the coal economy waned, however, so did the water system. By the 1990s, the company operating Amonate's water system was bankrupt, and the town's tap water was contaminated and only flowed at all thanks to Barnett and his neighbors. "Every time a line would bust, I'd patch it," says Barnett, who used a system of old inner tubes and clamps to repair the lines. And even that was just for Amonate's toilets or washing machines; for drinking water, says Barnett, "we hauled water out of the creek."

Today, thanks in part to a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Amonate's taps are coursing with clear, clean water. In addition, residents of the nearby town of Bishop, West Virginia, which also straddles the West Virginia–Virginia border, are drinking tap water again. Says Barnett: "It's 150 percent better than what we had."

Overcoming Barriers

The story of the Bishop-Amonate water improvement project is a story not just of helping two communities get water, but of cooperation; of different government agencies and states coming together to surmount bureaucratic barriers. "It was slick," says David Cole, assistant executive director of West Virginia's Region One Planning and Development Council, "and I've never seen anything like it."

"There were two communities in need, and both agreed to work together in a model of cooperation," says Jim Baldwin, Cole's counterpart at the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission in Lebanon, Virginia, which initiated the project after hearing from residents.

Adds Ralph Goolsby, ARC manager in the West Virginia Development Office, "One of the beauties of ARC is our ability to collaborate with other states on issues of policy, and this was a golden opportunity to do that and help one of our distressed counties."

To understand what happened, it helps to understand a little Appalachian water history. As the coalfields developed, coal companies built company towns near the mines with little regard for state lines. Amonate and Bishop, little more than five miles apart as the crow flies, are 15 minutes apart by car. Both towns straddle the state line, and each had its own water supply and system: Amonate's came from an underground well, and Bishop's came from a stream rushing out of a limestone cave. The mining companies did little to the water. Amonate's well water was simply chlorinated as it came out of the ground and then pumped to a storage tank 100 yards up the hill, from which it flowed by gravity to residents' homes through cast-iron pipes. Bishop's water passed through a sand filter before being sent to residents' homes, again through narrow cast-iron pipes. Over the years the mining companies sold the water utilities to private companies.

The system worked well enough until the mining economies declined. As people emigrated from the coalfields, the utilities' customer bases shrank. Prices for water rose even as private companies stopped maintaining their systems. By 1994 Amonate and Bishop were without drinking water. Amonate's water remained as pure as ever as it came out of the ground but was contaminated in the storage tank, which was rusted, collapsing, open to the sky, and filled with leaves and the occasional dead animal. Even worse, so riddled with leaks and clogged were the pipes that water hardly made it to Amonate's homes. By 1991, 70,000 gallons a day were being pumped, even though the system's 77 customers received barely a trickle.

In Bishop the situation wasn't much better. From Crockett's Cave, the water was supposed to be chlorinated and filtered before continuing on to Bishop's 106 customers (54 in West Virginia and 52 in Virginia). But the filter was broken, chlorine was no longer being added, and the treatment plant had no operator. "One day you'd have water; the next day you wouldn't," says Reverend Kenneth Fields of Bishop's Alexander United Methodist Church, which lost its boiler because it overheated one day when the water suddenly stopped. Even worse, says Charles Rest, district engineer with the Virginia Department of Health's Office of Water Programs, "the water had fecal matter in it," probably from cows pastured upstream of the source. "You couldn't tell whether the system was on or off, and the water just went out to customers without being treated," says Rest. In April 1994 the Virginia state health commissioner declared the water a public health hazard. The effect of the health declaration on Bishop was devastating. "The coal mines had left us and we had no water, and so we had no community," says Fields, "You have to look at it like that."

The People's Project

The Tazewell County Public Service Authority (PSA) agreed to take over the utilities on the Virginia side and recommended that the McDowell County Public Service District take over on the West Virginia side. A series of preliminary funding meetings on both towns' water systems in 1994 left participants shaking their heads. "I left that first meeting thinking 'this is impossible,' " remembers Allen Hess, former chairman of the Tazewell County PSA. There were two water systems, each crossing the state line, two counties, two health departments, two planning districts, two public service authorities, and two isolated communities with no public service budgets. And worse, it became clear to everyone involved that it would be cheaper to move Bishop and Amonate than it would be to supply them with new water systems. "Is it worth it?" Hess remembers everyone asking. "But these communities are home to people who've lived there all their lives; they've paid their taxes, and it just seemed the humane thing to do. It became what we thought of as the people's project."

"Our position was, everyone deserves water," says Jim Spencer, Tazewell County PSA administrator, "and it was just a matter of finding the key to open the lock."

The "key" turned out to be innovation. McDowell County, an ARC-designated distressed county, secured $429,150 from ARC, but let the Virginia Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which kicked in another $1 million, administer the funds. "We administered all the federal funds," says John Daniels Jr., community representative for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the state's CDBG program. "ARC turned loose all the funds to us and we paid all the bills. This may be the first time in our history with the ARC program that Virginia administered another state's ARC funds for a community facilities project."

Cooperation Was Crucial

When construction estimates came in at $2.4 million, almost $1 million higher than expected, says Don Payne, Tazewell County supervisor, "We were aggressive enough to build a large portion of the project by [ourselves] and thus save money and overcome the funding shortfall." And that turned out to be a crucial piece of the puzzle. "The willingness of the PSA to take on construction was a big deal for us," says Daniels, "and it gave us the impetus to do whatever was necessary to construct the project."

The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council stepped in with a grant of $124,000, and Tazewell County ponied up another $161,000. Although Amonate's pump would be in Virginia, as would Bishop's water treatment plant, West Virginia agreed to maintain the lines on its side of the border, and to buy water from the Tazewell County PSA. "Neither state could put a separate project together," says Jerry Wood, chairman of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors. "The numbers just weren't there to put in the type of system needed, so we had to cooperate." Says David Cole, of West Virginia's Region One Planning and Development Council: "To put ARC money from one state into another state to administer—it's the only time I've ever heard of it, but it worked out really well."

Today, the two systems remain separate. Amonate's water runs strong and clear from the original well to a new storage tank, and then through fresh pipes to every house and church in town. "There's no comparison between then and now," says Amonate postmaster Bill Miller. "Before, our bills were $29 a month, and we didn't have water two or three times a week. Now they're about $12, and we have all the water we need." In Bishop, a state-of-the-art membrane ultrafiltration plant, the first in the state, now filters the water from Crockett's Cave, sending up to 72,000 gallons of water a day to Bishop's homes under the aegis of one operator, who is automatically called if the pumps stop or the chlorine falters. "I've been here since 1940," says resident Don Sword, 71, "and now the water is good."

To Reverend Kenneth Fields, however, having plentiful, clean water is more than the sum of its parts. "The water has made a difference in our community," he says. "If you don't have any water, you don't have any community. The coal companies may be gone, but on account of the water, we've finally got a decent community."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.