In 2004, a resident called the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to report that there was a large flow of black solids coming down Laurel Creek. Upstream, people that worked for Independence Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy, and the state regulators watched as black water, at a flow of about 200 gallons a minute, come out of an old deep mine and poured into Laurel Creek; this flow last for about 3 days. Less than a mile down the road, there was a complaint filed from a woman, Mary Pauley of Hopkins Fork, who reported “black solids coming from her tap and a “rainbow, oily film on the surface of the water”. Mary later filed another complaint with the WVDEP stating that her water had stopped flowing for weeks at a time and when the flow would come back, it would be degraded or running red or black. Mary’s report coincides with the periods of heavy blasting near the communities and the accounts of others in the communities. Despite the seemingly clear connection between the blasting and the new water contamination in the communities, the WVDEP never came to a conclusion as to the cause of Mary's water problems.
In 2007, some organizers with Coal River Mountain Watch
and the Sludge Safety Project
, including lifelong resident of Prenter Patty Sebok, investigated these complaints and met a group of residents concerned about changes in their water and common health problems seen throughout their communites. In October, they held their first community meeting. Many of the residents found that they were all dealing with the same problems. More residents got involved and they began talking to anyone that would listen about Prenter's water problems and educating their neighbors. They arranged meetings with the Governor's legislative aide Jim Patrilllo, head of the DEP at the time Stephanie Timmermeyer, and the head of the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Special Reclamation Program, Ken Ellison to have face to face to talks about issues of funding for emergency water and accessing resources to address health concerns. A study was conducted to see if Prenter qualified for AML funding for a municipal water line; however, only contamination resulting from mining prior to 1977 qualifies a community for the funding and Prenter's water troubles began later. Unsatisfied with these results, residents partnered with Dr. Ben Stout of Wheeling Jesuit University through an EPA CARE grant to get some independent testing of their water. Collaboration with Dr. Stout as well as Dr. Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University is ongoing.
“We did go and meet with a guy form the governors once, but different members of the community have contacted Boone county emergency services, we’ve wentto the Danville PSD, and we’ve also gone to our Boone county commission. PSD and the Boone country commissioners are working on an extension for the water line.” -Patty Sebok
The communities requested emergency water, however, Secretary Timmermeyer said there was not “money accessible for any amount of emergency replacement water.” Residents, such as Maria Lambert, Patty Sebok, and Jennifer Massey, began going to Boone Co Commission and county water utility meetings and writing to all of their elected officials. Eventually, the Boone County Commission agreed to pay for water drawn from a tap at the Racine Community Center, about ten miles from the affected communities. While this was an improvement, many residents were elderly, disabled or sick, or caring for those that were. It was difficult for many residents to haul enough water to meet their needs. Frustrated by the lack of response from government agencies and elected officials, in July 2008, local leaders and volunteers from Coal River Mountain Watch came up with the idea for the Prenter Water Fund
, a project to deliver clean water to the residents of Prenter Hollow for drinking, cooking and other basic needs. A grant from the Paul and Vivian Olum Foundation enabled the Water Fund to buy 150 55-gallon water barrels to put at homes in Prenter. A local resident was hired to drive a delivery truck to fill the barrels every two weeks. The first water delivery was made two days before Christmas 2008. The Water Fund currently serves approximately 350 to 400 residents of Prenter Hollow and hopes to expand as more funding becomes available. Click here
to read about a day with the Prenter Water Fund.
The water barrels are only a temporary solution and cannot provide for 100% of a household's water consumption. Residents, such as Jennifer Massey, Ronnie Jenkins and others, lobbied tirelessly for a municipal water line to be installed, getting nearly everyone in the community to sign petitions and users agreements, and working closely with local officials. In January 2009, the Governor announced the awarding of a $1.5 million Small Cities Block Grant to building a water line in Prenter, adding to monies already committed by the Boone County Commission and West Virginia American Water. Construction of "Phase One" was completed in 2010. While this was a huge win for the folks in Prenter, the funding only brought the water line to between 60 and 75 percent of the homes in Prenter Hollow, leaving the rest with no promise of clean water any time soon. "Phase Two" of the water line remains unfunded.
Many of the residents have also joined a lawsuit suing the mining companies that operate in the area for medical expenses, property damages, emergency water, and compensatory and punitive damages in Boone County Court. The lawsuit is ongoing.