HD Media

CHATTAROY, W.Va. - In Chattaroy, a small neighborhood in Mingo County, West Virginia, residents like Megan Hatfield-Montgomery hesitate to let their children ride their bikes down the street, where toilet paper is often caked on the gravel under their tires.

Heavy rains in the neighborhood cause two manholes to overflow, leading rainwater mixed with raw sewage to flow through the community, leaving behind remnants like toilet paper and tampons. The water sometimes floods basements in homes and causes neighbors to worry about the potential health effects of being surrounded by the hazardous materials.

Soon, though, residents may be in for some relief when the Mingo County Public Service District begins repairing the sewage lines that cause anxiety and frustration in residents.

"In the last few months, we've done a little work in-house to mitigate the dangers, the risks, of that sewage overflow on an emergency basis. Now, though, we're going to be able to really tackle the problem - we're going to fix it up," said J.B. Heflin, director of the Mingo County PSD.

Chattaroy's sewage lines are made of terracotta pipes that were installed upward of 60 years ago and have seen little to no replacements or maintenance since. Like terracotta flower pots, the pipes weaken with age, and roots underground can easily penetrate the most vulnerable points, creating leaks that allow surface water into the pipes. When heavy rains hit and the nearby creek rises, Heflin said, the surface water begins flowing through the pipes, overburdening the sewage system and leading to the raw sewage that floods through the neighborhood several times a year.

The PSD has been testing the lines over the past few months, with smoke testing and sewage inspection cameras, to pinpoint the most problematic areas in the piping. Heflin said that while some of the portions of piping obviously need replaced, others were in great condition, so the PSD will try something a little different - and creative - to fix the problem.

Instead of replacing the system in its entirety - a project that would carry a $6 million price tag - the PSD will look to replace the parts of the system that need it and use the money saved to extend sewage service to residents in the area who don't currently have it.

"We're confident the repairs we have planned will be more than enough to stop the infiltration and inflow problems the system has, and they will also extend the life of the system," Heflin said. "Meanwhile, we'll be able to get more people connected, and that's great for all of us."

By bringing in more customers - approximately 40, Heflin said - the PSD will have more revenue to offset the costs of the loan it will need to pay for the project.

The project will cost a total of $3 million, per the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. Heflin said the PSD hopes to receive a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the project, as well as a grant-loan combo from the IJDC fund, which will leave the district on the hook for a $1 million loan - much lower than other options, Heflin said.

"With every project, there's almost always going to be some portion funded by loans, and with this, we're lucky it's a small portion and that we'll hopefully have a bit more money to pay off those bonds in the future," Heflin said.

When districts take on loans, whether from the IJDC or other sources, their monthly operational expenses and costs inevitably rise as they're tasked with making payments on the borrowed money.

Heflin said right now, the Mingo County PSD pays $100,000 a month in bond payments alone.

"That's not accounting for the payroll, vendor payments, parts and emergency repairs we have to pay for each month, either," he said.

Those costs - all of them - are covered by bills paid by the system's 4,500 customers, which are the only stream of revenue for any public service district.

In areas like Mingo County, Heflin said, it's crucial to keep rates low for customers, but it's becoming increasingly difficult as pools of grant money dwindle, state and federal support shrinks, and the problems keep growing as equipment ages and pipes deteriorate.

"Especially here, where people were hit so hard by the decline of the coal industry and there haven't been a lot of opportunities to take its place, the people struggle and they need to save their money every month, keep their costs down," Heflin said. "We don't like raising rates - these are our friends, our neighbors; we know them and watch them struggle - but we need to keep the water flowing, the power on, too. It's not an easy job, and it is unfair to all of us, really all of us."

Population loss in the area also compounds the problem: More people leaving means less revenue from bills coming in. And as industries and companies shut down, the PSD takes on more losses.

When flooring manufacturer Mohawk Industries shut down its Holden location in 2017, it not only left 100 people without jobs, but it also left the Mingo County PSD with a 10 percent monthly revenue loss overnight.

"It was the equivalent of losing 400 customers. It was a huge hit to us, and it's not the only one we've had to deal with here," Heflin said.

Another reality of operating utilities in the coalfields is that many systems eventually reach a point of inoperation and other districts step in so customers don't lose crucial services like water and sewage.

That's what happened when the Mingo County PSD took over the Chattaroy system in the early 2000s.

The system had three surcharges in place because it owed years' worth of payments to the city of Williamson for resold water, and it fell behind on hundreds of thousands of dollars owed on a loan from the 1960s to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We inherited this system and the issues that came with it," Heflin said. "We're making progress, districtwide, but we've got a lot of work left to do."

As director of the PSD, Heflin is the one who takes calls from customers like Hatfield-Montgomery when things go wrong, and it's not an easy job.

"It's heartbreaking, and it keeps me up at night. There are people all throughout our region affected by it, worrying they might be getting sick or their property is being damaged by problems with the pipes, but there's only so much we can do with so little money," Heflin said. "We want to keep everything affordable and have it in great condition, but our hands are tied sometimes, and it gets worse every day. Our equipment is starting to show its age, and we're going to need more and more money to fix it."

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.