When destitute small towns mean dangerous tap water

Nov 4, 2022, 7:02 AM | Updated: 8:31 pm
Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gand...

Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

KEYSTONE, W.Va. (AP) — Donna Dickerson’s heart would sink every time she’d wake up, turn on the faucet in her mobile home and hear 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 to bathe. Sometimes it would be on Thanksgiving or Christmas when family had come to stay.

“It was sickening, literally a headache and it disrupted everything,” she said. “Out of nowhere, the water would be gone, and we’d have no idea when it’d be back.”

While failures of big city water systems attract the attention, it’s small communities like Keystone, West Virginia, that more often are left unprotected by destitute and unmaintained water providers. Small providers rack up roughly twice as many health violations as big cities on average, an analysis of thousands of records over the last three years by The Associated Press shows. In that time, small water providers violated the Safe Drinking Water Act’s health standards nearly 9,000 times. They were also frequently the worst performers. Federal law allows authorities to force changes on water utilities, but they rarely do, 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 afforded,” said Chad Seidel, president of a water consulting company.

The worst water providers can have such severe problems that residents are told they can’t drink the water. For ten solid years Dickerson and 175 neighbors in the tiny, majority Black community had to boil all their water. That length of time is nearly unheard of — such warnings usually last only for days.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was signed into law in 1974 and initially protected Americans against 22 contaminants, including arsenic. Nearly half a century later, evolving science has broadened the coverage to more than 90 substances, and strengthened standards.

The miracle is that most water systems keep up – 94% of them comply with health standards.

After years of problems, Keystone finally got hooked up to a new water system last December, McDowell Public Service District, which focuses on upgrading systems in coal communities. Deteriorating water mains were replaced. A nonproft called DigDeep helped pay to connect homes to the new infrastructure.

When a water utility doesn’t treat water properly or has high levels of a contaminant, states are supposed to enforce the law. They usually give communities time to fix problems, and often they do. If there is intransigence or delay, a state authority can escalate action and impose fines. Yet in many towns, that doesn’t go well; there is no money to pay the fines. Some places struggle year after year.

The EPA stresses the vast majority of systems do provide safe water. For those having trouble, the agency has increased technical assistance, inspections and enforcement. Those efforts have decreased the number of systems consistently committing health violations, according to Carol King, an attorney in the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

The top concern of the water industry itself is funding for infrastructure, according to a survey.

Recruitment of professionals to run small water systems is one main issue. The largely white, male workforce is aging.

Earlier in his career, Tim Wilson, a water manager, spent time running the treatment plant in Wahpeton, Iowa, a community of just over 400 that expands when vacationers rush in during the summertime.

Small, rural communities have a “ridiculously hard” time recruiting certified operators, he said. Once they are trained, they can be lured away by better pay and benefits elsewhere.

The job demands can be heavy: in Wahpeton, Wilson not only ran the treatment plant, he plowed snow and testified as a zoning expert at local government meetings.

People in Ferriday, Louisiana had to get their water from the National Guard for four months back in 1999. The town’s water treatment plant, which had struggled to keep the water from turning brown, had completely failed. Those four months left a mark.

“I haven’t drunk the water since,” said Jameel Green, 42, who has lived in Ferriday most of his life. He now makes sure his two girls, ages 16 and 8, don’t drink the water either.

A new water treatment plant was supposed to fix Ferriday’s issues. But staff at the new plant struggled to find the right mix of chemicals, according to Rev. James Smith Sr., who was brought in to help with the issue. The state fined the town $455,265. No payment has been made. Smith said the water has improved significantly with increased testing and pilot studies.

Without a lot more money and more aggressive intervention in the worst places, experts say many Americans will continue to endure an expensive search for drinkable water, or else they’ll drink water that is potentially unsafe.

“In my view, this is a desperate problem,” said Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on public policy and water.

___

Phillis reported from Ferriday, Louisiana, and St. Louis. Fassett reported from Seattle.

___

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the Town of Ferriday, talks with water plant operator Mike Gandy inside the newer water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Plant operator Mike Gandy flushes sand out of a filter as part of the newer water plant equipment in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. The water is now tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods.  (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Aged infrastructure is seen in the recently retired water treatment plant in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              The Rev. James Edward Smith, Sr., who is a consultant to help improve the water system in Ferriday, La., speaks at the town water plant in Ferriday, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Smith said the water is now significantly improved. It's tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Kenyetta Hunt visits a spring along Route 52 in McDowell County, W.Va., where he and his family have collected water for decades because they don't trust the water provided by local utilities in their homes on June 7, 2022. Hunt said he visits the spring at least once a week to fill five gallon jugs of water to use for drinking and cooking. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)
            
              Donna Dickerson drinks a cup of tap water on the porch of her trailer in Keystone, W.Va., on June 22, 2022. For about a decade before being hooked up to a new water system late last year, residents of Keystone like Dickerson were told to boil water before drinking it for a decade because of the community's aging infrastructure. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)
            
              Mitoya Wilson sits in her car with her daughter Charleigh Wilson, 8, as she talks about the history of troubles with the town drinking water, in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.  In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Water plant operator Mike Gandy takes a water sample of the Ferriday water system from neighboring Ridgecrest, La., which is now in the Ferriday system, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. The water is now tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Deborah Elaine-Jones, tax clerk for the town of Ferriday, talks on her phone inside the older, now retired water plant facility in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. The water is now tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Jameel Green speaks to The Associated Press about the drinking water in Ferriday, La., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. He said he will not drink the water and tells his kids not to drink the water, too. (AP Photo/Michael Phillis)
            
              Water plant operator Mike Gandy takes a water sample of the Ferriday water system from a neighborhood in neighboring Ridgecrest, La., which is now in the Ferriday system, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. The water is now tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Plant operator Mike Gandy flushes sand out of a filter as part of the newer water plant equipment in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.  The water is now tested regularly and plant operators are working on new treatment methods.  (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Calbrial Smith, center, holds her son Torosiay Smith, Jr., 9 months, outside her home with family and friends, as she talks about what she believes are the effect of the drinking water on her children's health, in Ferriday, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
            
              Toney Lewis shows a bottle of tap water he saved, before his neighborhood was recently switched to the current Ferriday, La. water system, in Ridgecrest, La., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. In many places, people struggle to find water or else drink water that isn't clean. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

AP

FILE - In this May 24, 2004 file photo, a Mount Graham red squirrel darts through trees on Mount Gr...
Associated Press

Endangered red squirrel found in Arizona sees increase in population

The latest survey shows another increase in the population of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel in the Pinaleno Mountains of Arizona.
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Man to receive almost $18 million for wrongful NY conviction

A man who was freed in 2015 after spending a quarter-century in prison for an infamous tourist killing will receive nearly $18 million in legal settlements from the city and state of New York, his attorneys confirmed Friday. Lawyers for Johnny Hincapie said it marks one of the largest settlements for a wrongful conviction in […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Mamie King-Chalmers, woman in civil rights photo, dies at 81

DETROIT (AP) — Mamie King-Chalmers, who as a young Black woman appeared in an iconic photo about civil rights struggles in Alabama, has died at the age of 81. She died Tuesday in Detroit, her home since the 1970s, daughter Lasuria Allman said. A cause wasn’t disclosed. King-Chalmers, 21 at the time, was one of […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Nebraska man gets prison for leaving noose for coworker

LA VISTA, Neb. (AP) — A former employee at the Oriental Trading Co. has been sentenced to prison for leaving a noose on a floor scrubber that a Black colleague was set to use. The Nebraska U.S. Attorney’s office said Bruce Quinn, 66, was sentenced Friday to four months in prison and one year of […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Guest lineups for the Sunday news shows

WASHINGTON (AP) — ABC’s “This Week” — Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Dave Joyce, R-Ohio; Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and former CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX. __ NBC’s “Meet the Press” — Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu; Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass. __ CBS’ “Face the Nation” — Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Reps. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., […]
18 hours ago
Rev. Paula Stecker of the Christ the King Lutheran Church tidies up a memorial outside Club Q follo...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: What do we know about the Colorado bomb threat?

DENVER (AP) — More than a year before police say Anderson Lee Aldrich killed five people and wounded 17 others at a gay night club in Colorado Springs, Aldrich was arrested on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. Aldrich, who uses the pronoun they and is […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
...
SCHWARTZ LASER EYE CENTER

Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Here are 4 signs the HVAC unit needs to be replaced

Pool renovations and kitchen upgrades may seem enticing, but at the forefront of these investments arguably should be what residents use the most. In a state where summertime is sweltering, access to a functioning HVAC unit can be critical.
When destitute small towns mean dangerous tap water