Lack of trickle-down in West Virginia leaves poorest high and dry

Chemical spill crisis and lack of potable water highlight state's wealth divide

Bought at stores or distributed by officials or charities for free, water remains a valuable commodity in Charleston.
Ty Wright/The Washington Post/Getty Images

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The ongoing water crisis in West Virginia has revealed the economic inequality in the state, as the richest shrug off inconveniences brought on by the contamination while the poorest struggle to obtain one of life's basic necessities.

In the South Hills section of Charleston, where some homes sell for $1 million, residents report few problems finding or affording potable water.

“There’ve been no complaints, really. People just go pick it up,” said Steve Bias, 51, the owner of the Colonial Exxon gas station. “If someone said they had trouble finding water, we’d help them.” 

The neighborhood’s rolling hills are home to the city’s doctors, lawyers and a few coal industry executives, whose homes — including some sprawling mansions — overlook more modest areas in the Kanawha River Valley.

An hour south of Charleston, residents in the impoverished coal mining town of Nellis in Boone County describe a scene very different from that in South Hills.

Some people work for the mine, but many have been laid off. Others drive long distances to low-paying jobs in the service industry. 

Jessica Halstead, 22, who makes $9 an hour, encountered chaos at a big-box store the first night of the water ban. People were grabbing bottles off the shelves even though the store had almost doubled the price of packaged water.

"You had to literally fight people to get it," she said. "We paid $4 for one case that's usually about $2. We paid $3 for one case that's usually about a dollar. Usually $2.97 was $4.36." 

Halstead said she even saw a person snatch water out of the hands of a woman with a baby. "I said, 'You stingy sons-of-bitches,'" she said. "People around our age don't need it as much as a newborn child."

Halstead and her boyfriend have their own 2-year-old child, Andrew. “He depends on water all the time," she said, "and he doesn’t have it now."

Even though authorities are slowly lifting water bans around the region, Halstead said she still doesn’t trust the tap water for her toddler.

“He’ll never drink tap water again after this. Never again."

Vivian Stockman, an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, explained the difficulties facing the region's disadvantaged as they attempt to find drinkable water. “If you’re elderly or disabled, if you don’t have a computer, if you don’t have extra money for trips in search of water or hot meals, then you are in much more dire straits.

“If you are living paycheck to paycheck, purchasing bottled water or driving to the nearest distribution point for a rationed amount of water, it can quickly drain your wallet."

Dustin White, an environmental activist handing out free water in Nellis, said he believes economic inequality loomed over the entire ordeal, even affecting the amount of airtime most news networks gave the issue. 

"I feel that because of West Virginia's low economic standing, a lot of the national media attention has been scarce," White told Al Jazeera.

"Had this been New York or California, there would have been much more media attention. I believe many in this nation see us as just poor, dumb hillbillies who can be sacrificed."

'Carry it half a mile'

The crisis has put small business owners and their workers in a tough position.

Lee Van Driver, 43, a barrel-chested man who owns Center O Town Car Wash in downtown Charleston, said he had lost as much as $10,000 in revenue during the three days he was forced to shut down.

“This is the busy season, because of the salt put on the road,” Van Driver told Al Jazeera.

He was upset that he couldn’t control the situation.

“We got stripped of the opportunity to do what we do,” he said, adding that the corporation responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries, had not earned the right to affect so many people’s lives.

With the ban lifted Monday for most of Charleston, Tuesday was the first time his employees could return to work. Most of them earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, augmented by about $25 in tips, for about $100 a day.

On Tuesday morning, the four workers on duty sat outside the car wash, smoking cigarettes and waiting for customers.

“We were working in the water all day before we got told,” said one worker, John Davis, 39.

Restaurants, which rely on water for almost everything they do, from cooking to cleaning, also shut down, depriving workers of tips.

“I’ve been out of work for three days. That really put a dent in my paycheck,” said Jacob McMurty, 23, a bicycle deliveryman at Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in downtown Charleston.

The United Way charity has set up an emergency fund for people who lost wages when their businesses closed during the crisis.

People in West Virginia coal country have been especially hard hit. Now unable to get safe water from their taps, they have had to pay for water or buy gas to drive to a free water station.

“People with more money, they can go buy water all they want to, and here we are having to carry it half a mile, and go up to the spring and carry it with jugs,” said Halstead in Nellis. 

“You take it for granted when you have it every day. We had to turn our main line off, because it was coming up from the toilets, and it took your breath away,” she said. “Your skin itches, your eyes burn.”

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