KEYSTONE, W.Va. (AP) — Donna Dickerson’s heart would sink every time she woke up, turned on the faucet in her mobile home and heard the pipes gurgling.
Sometimes it would happen on a day when her mother, who is 86 and has dementia, had a doctor’s appointment and needed a bath. Sometimes it was at Thanksgiving or Christmas when the family had come to stay.
“It was nauseating, literally a headache, and it disrupted everything,” she said. “Out of nowhere the water would be gone and we would have no idea when it would be back.”
Caring for someone with dementia is hard enough. Caring for someone with dementia without clean water takes the stress to another level.
While failures in big city water systems attract attention, it is small communities like Keystone, West Virginia that are more often left unprotected by distressed and unmaintained water suppliers. Small water providers rack up about twice as many health violations as big cities on average, an analysis of thousands of records over the past three years by The Associated Press shows. During that time, small water providers violated the Safe Drinking Water Act health standards nearly 9,000 times. They were also often the very worst performers. Federal law allows authorities to force changes at water utilities, but they rarely do so, even for the worst offenders.
“We’re talking about things that we’ve known in drinking water for a century, that we have an expectation in this country that everybody should be able to afford it,” said Chad Seidel, president of a water consulting firm.
The worst water providers can have such severe problems that residents are told not to drink the water. For 10 solid years, Dickerson and 175 neighbors in the small, majority-black community of Keystone had to boil all their water. That time is almost unheard of – such warnings usually only last for days. The claim added gas and electricity costs on top of the water bill. In addition, residents would lose water directly for days or even weeks at a time without any warning.
A coal company had built the original system but then left, leaving no one in charge.
When Dickerson’s water broke, she drove the dying county’s winding mountain roads to the food bank or bought water at Dollar General — one of the area’s only stores. She hauled containers home and heated pots on the stove to fill the tub so her mother could bathe. She stored water in containers in her mobile home’s two bathrooms to flush toilets. Dishes and laundry would pile up.
There was the cost of gas, the cost of 5 gallon water jugs, the cost of doing laundry at the laundromat. There was also an emotional cost.
“It drains you,” she said. “You have to learn to survive.”
When President Gerald Ford signed the landmark Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, he said that “nothing is more important to the life of every American” than clean water to drink, and he also mentioned clean air and clean food. The law protected Americans from 22 pollutants, including arsenic. Nearly half a century later, evolving science has expanded coverage to more than 90 substances, strengthening standards along the way.
The miracle is that most water systems comply – 94% comply with health standards.
But Dickerson lives in one of the places that didn’t, the AP found, struggling and failing repeatedly.
After years of trouble, Keystone was finally connected to a new water system last December, the McDowell Public Service District, which focuses on upgrading systems in coal communities. The deteriorating water lines were replaced, and a nonprofit called DigDeep helped pay to connect homes to the new infrastructure.
When a water utility does not treat water properly or has high levels of a contaminant, states must enforce the law. They usually give communities time to resolve issues, and they often do. But if there is intransigence or delay, the state can escalate and impose fines. In many cities, things are not going well.
“Giving them a penalty isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s just going to make things worse in most cases,” said Heather Himmelberger, director of the Southwest Environmental Finance Center at the University of New Mexico. The cities can’t afford the work.
About 3% of all systems the AP analyzed landed on the EPA’s priority list for enforcement last year. Even worse are the 450 utilities that have been on the list for at least five of the last 10 years. Four million Americans depend on these systems.
Regulators rarely step in to force change.
“For the most part, what regulators have is moral appeal, and they want to wag their finger,” said Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on public policy and water.
The EPA says the vast majority of systems provide clean water, and for those that struggle, the agency has increased technical assistance, inspections and enforcement. These efforts have reduced the number of systems that consistently commit health violations, according to Carol King, an attorney in the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Teodoro said water systems initially sprouted up as communities did, giving rise to a fragmented drinking water sector dominated by small providers. School districts in America formed similarly but went through a period of consolidation. Much less has happened with local water systems.
The sector’s biggest concern is financing infrastructure, according to a survey.
Josiah Cox has a special view of which cities are in the worst trouble. He spent years working on water issues and noticed that many small utility owners failed to save money for maintenance or struggled when experienced employees left.
So he started a company, Central States Water Resources, buying up problem utilities, making upgrades and billing customers for the costs over time.
Terre Du Lac, Missouri was one. It is a private community of 5,200 hectares with about 1,200 homes located around 16 lakes. It advertises a relaxed atmosphere an hour south of St. Louis, where people come for golf or water skiing.
But the water tower became rusted. The community’s drinking water well picked up naturally occurring radioactive material that can cause cancer.
He’s seen a lot: bird droppings in drinking water and a place that treated its water with chlorine tablets intended for swimming pools.
“You start what we call the death spiral for these utilities” where they don’t have the resources to pay for what regulators are demanding, Cox said.
Michael Tilley, who was criticized by regulators for how he ran the Terre Du Lac system before Cox took over, spent most of his life in the community and knows many residents. He said he felt a responsibility to serve them well, but repeatedly faced obstacles in finding grant money.
“I think if I had any claim to fame, it was just keeping the prices low and trying to operate this thing on a leash,” he said. “I look back a lot of times and that was my problem.”
Recruiting professionals to operate small water systems is also a major problem. The predominantly white male workforce is aging, according to studies.
Earlier in his career, Tim Wilson, a water project manager, spent time running the wastewater treatment plant in Wahpeton, Iowa, a community of just over 400 that expands as vacationers rush in during the summer.
Small, rural communities have a “ridiculously difficult time” recruiting certified operators, he said. So once they train, they may be lured away by better pay and benefits elsewhere.
The job demands can also be overwhelming. In Wahpeton, Wilson was the only employee in charge of the treatment plant. He served as a snowplow driver and zone expert at local government meetings. His crowning achievement, he says, was convincing officials to hire another person to help. It took six years.
Nearly 1,000 miles south in Ferriday, Louisiana, staffing is an issue, but the water has failed people in every major way.
You know your water is in trouble when it’s being distributed by the National Guard. This is where the residents of Ferriday took their bottles and buckets for four months back in 1999.
“I haven’t drunk the water since,” said Jameel Green, 42, who has lived in the city most of his life. He now makes sure his two daughters, ages 16 and 8, don’t drink Ferriday water either, even though it costs $60 a month.
He held up a garden hose with a white membrane from the water.
It wasn’t always like that. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ferriday had a vibrant music scene – Jerry Lee Lewis was a local and acts like BB King stopped by. About 5,200 people called Ferriday home. There are about 40% fewer people now and Ferriday is a predominantly black community. Celebrating the city’s place in music history, the Delta Music Museum is surrounded by mostly empty shops.
In 2016, the water situation was to change. The United States Department of Agriculture helped finance a new treatment plant that went into operation.
But when the company that built the facility walked away after completion, the people who ran it had little training in how to operate it. Staff have struggled to find the right mix of chemicals, according to the Rev. James Smith Sr., who was brought in to help with the problem.
“That’s the big problem. Everyone’s still doing trial and error,” Smith said.
Ferriday’s water problems represented “a system in total breakdown,” according to Sri Vedachalam, director of water availability and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc, who reviewed public files.
Water disinfection in Ferriday leaves levels of carcinogens that are too high. For failing to fix its problems, the state fined Ferriday $455,265 in November 2021.
Smith said the water is now significantly improved. It is regularly tested and plant operators are working on new treatment methods.
But Ferriday never responded to the fine, and the Louisiana Department of Health is threatening to ask a judge to impose a timeline for improvements and force payment.
Without much more money and more aggressive intervention in the worst places, experts say many Americans will continue to endure an expensive search for drinking water or drink water that is potentially unsafe.
“In my opinion, this is a desperate problem,” Teodoro said.
Phillis reported from Ferriday, Louisiana and St. Louis. Fassett reported from Seattle.
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