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Residents want polluted West Virginia water cleaned up. Who will do it?


Residents in a small community in southern West Virginia say their well water and a creek have become toxic. It's unclear who is responsible for the pollution or when residents will have clean water again. As Briana Heaney from West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports, the local water controversy reaches into the highest levels of state government.

BRIANA HEANEY, BYLINE: Up a gravel road surrounded by the lush, green Appalachian Mountains sits Bobby Keen's house.

Hey, Bobby.

There's a little wooden building about 20 feet from his house.

BOBBY KEEN: My wellhouse.

HEANEY: He's gotten water from this well for 20 years. There is a hose that runs to his house from a spigot on the tank. He fills a mason jar.


KEEN: And it's milky. We have, like, an orange color.

HEANEY: The water is rusty and hazy. It smells like sulfur.

KEEN: And we never had this trouble till here, about 8 or 9 months ago, and it's got worse.

HEANEY: Inside his house is an empty fish tank.

KEEN: We had fish and goldfish, and they're living anywhere. We had two tanks up and used this water - killed everyone.

HEANEY: They don't drink the water anymore. And the murky water has left him and his neighbors along Indian Creek with a lot of questions.


KEEN: How come they have people that's living like they're in a third-world country in the United States of America?

HEANEY: This was at the courthouse in Pineville in early April for a hearing regarding water issues in the area. Keen says one thing is clear.


KEEN: They have something that's getting in the water.

HEANEY: The water has been infiltrated by a white, stringy slime. It started showing up in the area a year ago.

TERRY FLETCHER: It's not particularly harmful to humans or animals.

HEANEY: That's Terry Fletcher, spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. He says the slime is caused by a bacteria.

FLETCHER: So as it moves down the diversion ditch and into Indian Creek, it dissipates. So it's just really kind of more prevalent there, right around where the water, you know, artesianing.

HEANEY: Artesianing, or coming out of the ground. And that's right above a defunct coal mine. At least one test also showed high levels of metal in that water, which is consistent with acid mine drainage, where this bacteria thrives. The state ordered the mine's permit holder to clean it up. The problem? Its former owner, Pinnacle Mining Company, no longer exists, yet the permit is still registered in its name. Six years ago, Pinnacle's mineral rights, land and other assets were sold off in pieces. But to whom?

MATT HEPLER: That is a million-dollar question.

HEANEY: That's Matt Hepler, a scientist with Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group. Bluestone Mining Resources, Alpha Mining and Pinn MC Wind Down Company are all in court with state regulators over who is responsible for the water issues. Court documents show Bluestone, which is owned by the state's governor, Jim Justice, bought parts of Pinnacle Mining, but the governor says Bluestone is not responsible for the polluted water.

JIM JUSTICE: I'm all for them having good, clean drinking water, but you can't blame me on this one.

HEANEY: He says the mining companies he owns are, quote-unquote, "distantly involved and therefore not culpable." Hepler says it's hard to piece together who is responsible.

HEPLER: They can't even figure out - like, they're arguing who that new owner is. So like, they're not even sure. They're just pointing fingers at each other.

HEANEY: Meanwhile, Bobby Keen and his neighbors want to be sure their water is safe.

KEEN: I'm afraid now, afraid that arsenic and everything is tainted. And I'm scared. I mean, everybody's scared of it.

HEANEY: The community is considering its own class-action lawsuit once the court decides which mining company is at fault. For NPR news, I'm Briana Heaney in Pineville, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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