In early January 2019, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation was contacted by a panicked community member in McDowell County claiming that families in O'Toole, a small community outside of Anawalt, WV which sits below and surrounded by three Mountain Top Removal sites, were going for long periods without water, and when they did have water (barely a trickle) it was brown in color with leaves, twigs, and worms coming out of their faucets. Over weeks of talking to various community members, taking trips down to McDowell County, and studying maps, we discovered that 15 families were suffering from a lack of clean water due to an unmanaged and quickly failing water system which used to be known as O'Toole Water Association. The bad news was flooding in: Community members and their children were experiencing water borne illnesses, water pipes were being damaged, residential water heaters were having to be replaced regularly, and outraged community members were refusing to pay their water bills. The complaints had gone all the way to WV State Capitol and were left unheard.
Keeper of the Mountains Foundation quickly stepped in and donated bottled water and a reusable 325 gallon tank to distribute clean water in refillable jugs to the 15 families. Members of the O'Toole community monitored and managed the distribution, because in the small towns of West Virginia, if you want something done you have to do it yourself. We concluded that the safest step forward would be to find a way to connect these families to the next closest municipal water source, McDowell County PSD. Tensions were high for various reasons between O'Toole community members and representatives of McDowell County PSD, the main reason being that O'Toole community members could not afford to pay the meter set fees or security deposits, much less pay for the water pipes and required hookup assembly to connect to their residences. Our work included building positive communication between the two communities and fundraising for the entire amount required by McDowell County PSD.
We organized a community meeting at the Anawalt Volunteer Fire Department, which sits directly below the O'Toole community, on February 07, 2019. Community members, representatives from McDowell County Public Service District, and news media showed up. We gathered information, gave everyone a chance to speak, and set forward into what would be a 4 month long journey of providing clean water to these families.
Our fundraising campaign raised over $7,000 to help pay for security deposits, meter set fees, and materials thanks to so many donors nationwide and a generous organization called Putting Prayers to Action! out of Kentucky. A beautiful effort of community was made with so many volunteers helping to establish contact with locals, far reach for fundraising, and even local bake sales.
After manually digging ditches for the first three homes closest to the McDowell County PSD mainline, we quickly realized how long this endeavor would take without machinery and more hands. Because of the media's coverage, (thanks to WVVA, Charleston Gazette Mail), our project was brought to the immediate attention of CITCO+One Foundation. They brought a crew of workers, machinery, and more materials to help finish the 12 remaining homes.
By August 16, the last house was finished and hooked up to McDowell County PSD. It was a glorious feeling to hear the thanks, cheers, relief, and all out glee of families being able to bathe without smelling. Drink water without getting sick. Take care of their children the way any parent has the human right to take care of their children.
Caity Coyne, of Charleston Gazette, summed it up best "For the first time that she can remember, Pam St. Clair watched her 16-year-old son get excited for the school year to begin. He said, ‘Mom, I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to smell like that water this year,’” St. Clair said." We thank Caity and Rachel Anderson, prior WVVA reporter, endlessly for their dedicated coverage of this story, sadly, one of many happening in WV hollers of abandoned coal towns.
Links to the final coverage below: