Crisis and Opportunity: West Virginia’s fight for equitable infrastructure

By Katelyn Campbell for Black by God,

On the afternoon of Friday, November 10, about 700 households on the West Side of Charleston lost access to water and gas heating. The trouble started with a water main break that shot water into pipes carrying natural gas throughout the predominantly Black neighborhood. At the time of this writing, residents have been told to prepare for up to a week with no heat. Representatives of Mountaineer Gas stated that their outage could not be corrected until West Virginia American Water completes repairs on the water main, leaving residents in the lurch as they seek out space heaters and alternative locations for bathing and meals.

For residents of the Charleston area, waiting on the water company to make things right is an experience that’s become all too familiar, particularly for those who were present for the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill about one mile upstream from the utility’s sole water intake for the 300,000 customers it serves. In the wake of that disaster, local groups began to organize in pursuit of a public water system – a goal that never came to fruition. In the years since, West Virginia American Water has regularly requested rate increases from the state Public Service Commission due to claims of rising costs as its parent company, American Water, made well over $800 million last year. Meanwhile, its infrastructure continues to age, leading to water main breaks like the one that caused this most recent outage.

Spend time in any West Virginia community and one of the first gripes you will hear from residents will certainly be issues with water and sewer infrastructure. In many coalfield communities in particular, aging water systems that were first installed by now-absented coal companies as part of coal camp construction have become a growing liability for the small towns that must now operate them. This has left historically Black municipalities such as the town of Keystone in McDowell County battling years of boil water advisories and low pressure while awaiting funds for new lines and treatment facilities. (Keystone finally got their new water system in January 2022 after a decade on a boil water advisory.)

The 2021 passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) presented a tremendous opportunity for communities to fund improvements that would help them economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. West Virginia received over $4 billion in ARPA funds – an historic investment that allowed for a broad range of uses, including money for infrastructure such as roads and broadband as well as water and sewer. 

As part of an effort to solicit feedback on how to move forward with ARPA money, West Virginia’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs (HHOMA) released plans for a 55-county listening tour to speak with residents about what the pressing needs are in their area. The HHOMA, led by Executive Director Jill Upson, is charged with representing the needs of underserved West Virginians in state governance, as well as addressing issues faced by minority communities in the state. 

The tour began in earnest in August 2021, making its first stop in Brooke County in the Northern Panhandle. According to documents received through a Freedom of Information Act request, over the course of the tour, 137 West Virginians attended stops to provide feedback. The HHOMA did not collect data documenting participants’ race or gender; however, they did give commenters the option to record their profession or affiliation. Many participants self-identified as local or county officials, as well as long-time community volunteers. 

According to their records, the HHOMA listening tour made it to 28 counties prior to ending its run early. In a comment to Mountain State Spotlight, Upson shared that the office lost their executive assistant in May 2022, leaving her as its only employee. This meant that the HHOMA did not have enough manpower to continue the tour, leaving the southern half of the state unvisited. According to data from the 2020 Census, Southern West Virginia is home to the largest proportions of Black residents per capita. Of the counties that did receive tour stops, many are rural, which likely skewed the priorities represented in the resulting data. The top concerns amongst tour participants in these areas were aging water and sewer infrastructure as well as the desire for enhanced recreation opportunities, access to broadband, and funds to address abandoned and dilapidated structures. Major population centers with larger populations of Black residents such as Charleston, Beckley, and Huntington did not receive tour stops. 

Counties with HHOMA listening tour stops

African Americans/Black residents per WV county, 2020 Census

West Virginia’s geographic diversity makes the specificity of local issues increasingly important. For instance, while residents of more remote counties with aging residents and declining populations may struggle with collecting enough tax revenue to provide basic services such as fire and EMS, counties closer to Pittsburgh and DC face the problems that come with growth – rising costs of housing, needing to expand roads. The need to account for these differences as well as more hyper-specific local concerns made the mission of the listening tour all the more important – it was a unique opportunity for West Virginians from every hill and holler to give input on a volume of funding with the power to fulfill needs big and small whose solutions have been simply awaiting a budget for generations. The tour’s early termination meant that the needs and perspectives of half of the state went unheard and unrecorded in records of the proceedings. And furthermore, issues that specifically impact the minoritized West Virginians that the HHOMA exists to represent were hardly reflected in the responses. Of the 137 responses, only four mentioned the needs of minority communities.

While leaders in state government have touted their plans for ARPA fund spending as “community-informed”, Black advocates in particular have pushed back, especially after over $500 million in ARPA funds were rerouted through the state’s Economic Development Authority as opposed to more directly into community projects. The EDA has wide-ranging power to make deals with large companies to bring in new business, whereas many of the projects proposed as part of the listening tour or by organizers since favor more local solutions that directly target the needs of West Virginians living in poverty.

Although large economic development projects do create jobs in some West Virginia communities, advocates such as the Rev. James Patterson of the Partnership of African American Churches argue that the state has missed an opportunity to make small investments in underserved communities that would result in huge improvements to residents’ everyday lives. For Patterson, that looks like the health center he has been working to fund to bridge the gap in services on Charleston’s West Side. For one anonymous commenter in Marion County, it would be an increase in minority hiring initiatives. Or as one respondent from the Eastern Panhandle proposed, funds for affordable housing to accommodate the needs of a growing immigrant population in an area with some of the fastest-growing housing costs.

As the deadline for states to obligate ARPA funds approaches on December 31, 2024, advocates remain involved in the struggle for greater community connection and accountability to West Virginians living in poverty. In January 2023, Rev. Matthew Watts and Ricardo Martin of the Tuesday Morning Group submitted a proposal to Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw and Senate President Craig Blair to allocate $300 million of remaining ARPA funds toward a Tuesday Morning Group Economic Justice, Fairness, and Equity Plan. This plan would allocate funds to cities and counties based upon the proportion of residents living in poverty in that county relative to the 300,000 total West Virginians who are poor. From there, cities and counties could then distribute funds to appropriate projects that focus their attention upon minority and underserved communities.

The Tuesday Morning Group’s plan would systematize the process for how local governments prioritize ARPA spending – a starkly different approach than what many West Virginians cynically understand as a status quo where it helps if you “know a guy.” In spite of local and statewide support, the Legislature didn’t bite on the proposal, instead continuing with their plans to move funds to the state EDA. Earlier this week, the group shared plans to submit a request to the Governor and Legislative leadership to set aside $426 million from the state’s historic surplus to begin to settle the $853 million it owes to West Virginia State University – an HBCU.

In spite of the ongoing jockeying for position, the remaining ARPA funds continue to have potential for creating transformative investments in West Virginia communities that have long been subjected to extraction. In spite of the state taking a proactive stance on “[promoting] equitable outcomes [as] an integral part of [its] deliberative process” in its 2021 plan for use of recovery funds, as of yet it seems that West Virginians can expect more of the same unless something changes soon before the sand in the funding allocation hourglass runs out. Until then, residents will keep boiling their water while waiting for the internet to refresh.


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