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The Wages of Coal

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West Virginia definitely needs to double down on coal:

Each morning Tina Coleman turns her faucet, she waits to see what color the water will be when, or if, it flows out.

Some days it’s blue or green — earthy tones that could be comforting in a river bed surrounded by trees, instead of filling the porcelain tub she uses to bathe her 9-month-old grandson. Other days, the water looks like different shades of rust: deep, coppery reds and browns. Sometimes it’s white and cloudy, as if a powder, thoroughly stirred, is about to dissolve.

“You never know what color it’s going to be when it comes out. It’s like a kaleidoscope,” said Cierra Coleman, Tina Coleman’s 18-year-old daughter, and mother to 9-month-old Keaton.

Even on good days, when the water flows mostly clear, it can leave anything it touches gray.

“It turns our nails gray, our laundry gray — look at this,” Cierra held out her arm to show the noticeably off-white tinge of her Mount View High School sweatshirt. “We don’t even buy anything white anymore. What’s the point?

“I can’t imagine that’s good for us to be drinking, either.”

Before it was a city, the Gary area was a web of small towns and hollows surrounded by more than a dozen coal mines, all owned and operated by U.S. Steel Corporation. Up until 1970, the company owned all the land and property within the region.

The Charleston Gazette reported that the company ran the water plant, picked up garbage and provided electricity. It performed maintenance on the system, taking care of problems as they arose.

Soon though, as coal production slowed in the region, U.S. Steel began to pull its resources from the city it created. In September 1970, U.S. Steel moved to incorporate five coal camps — Gary, Wilcoe, Thorpe, Elbert and Filbert — into one, the city of Gary, named for a founder of the company. Coal mining families, who were renting homes at bargain prices, were offered a chance to buy them.

The company donated its water plant to the city, all in an effort to cut tax and maintenance burdens. Without company support, there was no one left to maintain utility systems — trained engineers were some of the first to leave when coal mines began shutting down.

As U.S. Steel shrunk its operations and paid less in taxes, the city got less money to pay its bills. Perhaps most importantly, as coal mining jobs left, no other labor sector rose to take its place, leaving many residents jobless in what was once the fifth-largest coal producing city in the state.

Coleman and her neighbors rely on a water system that, for the most part, relies on the same pipes donated to the city nearly 50 years ago, with few upgrades since then. It’s not just Gary, though. Residents throughout Southern West Virginia’s coalfields, in different towns that relied on different companies, will swear the same story applies to them.

Corporate reliance, according to residents and others familiar with the area’s water infrastructure history, cursed West Virginia’s industrial waterways.

“These communities were developed to house workers to mine coal. [Coal operators] were not interested in, for the most part, planning,” said Amy Swann, director of the West Virginia arm of the National Rural Water Association.

“They were interested in, ‘How can I put this town up in the cheapest way possible and move on?’ and that’s what they did. Any of the regulations or planning factors we consider today were not around then, and now we’re dealing with what that means.”

Today, an estimated $17 billion is needed to correct water infrastructure challenges for all of West Virginia, per the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a state agency that serves as a clearinghouse for funding on infrastructure projects. That figure is almost four times the state’s entire budget for 2018.

McDowell County, where this story takes place, went 75-23 for Donald Trump in 2016. MAGA! And while it might be a cheap shot to note this and while I doubt a Clinton administration was going to rush in and clean up West Virginia water, the belief that Donald Trump is the savior for West Virginia only poisons more people in the future.

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