West Virginia Should Care About Its Water

Morgantown Dominion Post
18 January 2014
By John Samsell

JUST OVER 10 years ago, writings in this space were all about water in West Virginia. Concern at that time was about foreign interests consuming another of the state’s prime resources.

What occurred downstate in recent weeks wasn’t even a consideration. But now we know how precious our state’s water can be, even to our residents.

A chemical leak that polluted the Elk River and southward has drawn attention nationally, even internationally, and people are rallying to help those in need. Who is to blame for all of this will be determined eventually, but finger-pointing is bound to continue for years to come.

Although there is no doubt that preservation of the state’s rivers and streams has progressed considerably during the past decades, there is no doubt more attention to this natural resource is a must.

Attention to pollution of our streams has been improved by dribs and drabs, primarily because of the extraction of our natural resources during the past century.

The state’s first public service commission was created 100 years ago, in 1913. Yet, at that time, concerns were primarily related to telephones and railroads. Administration of the Workers Compensation Fund also was considered.

It wasn’t until 1914 that a movement was begun to regulate coal mines, tanneries and pulp mills that were discharging waste materials into streams.

The result of those laws included a plan by Parsons Pulp and Paper to have a by-product plant to use waste material that was being dumped into the Cheat River.

Also in 1914, a hygienic laboratory was created at WVU. Skilled chemists and bacteriologists were in charge. In 1918, that unit was moved to Charleston.

Under a 1915 law, a state health department was placed in charge of testing streams and water supplies. Improvement of drinking water was the goal, finally. Many outbreaks of typhoid fever were investigated in relation to water supplies.

As noted in a 2003 column, water is one of West Virginia’s prime natural resources, and others besides state residents are interested in it. The concern was that out-of-state interests were about to take charge of the state’s water without much remuneration to West Virginia, just as many coal interests did.

Late in 2003, American Water Works Co., which owned water in 26 states, had requested a 16-percent rate increase just nine months after it took over water systems downstate.

A British company, Thames, had been approved to take over the water interests in January 2003. That company was a subsidiary of RWE Aktiengesellschaft, a German firm.

It was West Virginia American Water Co. that controls the water companies where the chemical leak occurred recently. A decade ago, the firm said its water rates in 45 systems in the state had rates lower than other companies. The Public Service Commission said, however, that those had fewer than 200 customers each, or an average of 1,000 users. West Virginia-American at the same time had 170,000 customers.

The city installed filters to help purify its water in 1897, and in 1912, it built a bigger reservoir at Tibbs Run. By 1922, daily consumption averaged 133 gallons per citizen. That included industrial use. The total was 2.5 million gallons a day.

In 2014 and beyond, West Virginians hope their water gets more attention.

JOHN SAMSELL is a retired copy editor/special sections editor for The Dominion Post. His column appears Saturday. Email him at columns@dominionpost.com.