Cairo: population 281.
I love Cairo. But some folks here have gone seven years with only bottled water. Others have running water that’s right now in jeopardy from an experimental frack dump. I’m going to tell you about them. But first I want you to understand that it wasn’t always this way.
Back in the day, back when I was a kid, I spent lots of summers there. We’d have family reunions at an old family home, and spend a week with all the kids squished into one room with lots of beds. All the cousins would walk downtown (a few blocks away) and get push-ups or drumsticks or ice cream sandwiches.
We’d squish pennies on the railroad tracks. We’d look for marbles at the old glass factory. We’d hike to Billy Falls or the old golf course, consisting of fields and fields of black-eyed Susans that had taken over the abandoned fairways. We’d go back to the house to root through family photos and read Archie comics, or to skip stones across the river that ran through the backyard.
Our family house is long gone—a tragedy. But the town, and my nostalgic love for it remains.
So here I am in Cairo, again, on a beautiful day in June. But this time, I’m knocking on doors, canvassing for my campaign. It feels strange to be here in this context, and at this time. It’s early for this. Heck, the election won’t be for 16 months.
But I want to let folks know that someone cares about what it’s like out here. That we want to Holler from the Hollers about it. That we need representatives who are trying to work on the things that will make our lives better. Because I promise you this, of all the folks I’ve talked to out here in this red, rural, beautiful district, not one person said the most important thing their representatives could be working on for them is streamlining regulations for Big Energy or putting our clean water in deeper jeopardy.
I’m pretty shy, so door-knocking is awkward for me. I’m not a politician; I’m just mad that our politicians are doing such a bad job, mad enough to run myself.
It does get easier as I go. Folks are nice. Sometimes no one is home, and I leave a copy of The Appalachian Oracle in the door, but other times I may be asked to sit on the porch and watch the birds as we chat.
When I ask people “What’s the most important thing your representative could be working on?” the concerns are the same: Jobs, Healthcare, the Opioid Epidemic, Social Security, Schools.
And clean water. Water is at the top, the most popular answer in this red district.
Surprised? Not me.
And this isn’t just about the frack dump and that threat. Because actually, when we were gathering petition signatures last week in the Pennsboro and Pullman areas, not one person we spoke to had even heard about the frack dump or the loophole that will let Antero treat its contaminated frack brine as “stormwater” that can flow without enforceable limits into the Hughes above the drinking water intake that serves them.
That threat is stomach-churning, don’t get me wrong, but most of the folks we talked to have told me they’re afraid to drink the water, already. They were horrified but not surprised that there’s yet another threat (and that’s a sad state of things in itself, how common that reaction was, that sense of absolute powerlessness). But to them, the frack dump is just piling on.
On top of everything else, the government wants to allow Antero to make the water even worse.
Because of course that’s what they’re trying to do.
So when folks here say they’re “concerned about clean water” it’s way more basic. For some it means they just want to stop getting warnings and boil advisories. And for others it literally means that they just want clean running water in their homes, because they don’t even have that.
We deserve clean water, too
Meet Donnie DeVaughn, and his bottles of water.
He has to use those to drink, to bathe with, to wash dishes with—everything.
Once upon a time, folks down his road had good, clean well water. They’re not sure what caused it, but around 2010, they started getting sick. Some had more of just a chronic, nagging something they couldn’t quite fight off. Others were hospitalized and dealt with serious health crises before they figured out what the problem was.
Turns out, their well water had somehow gotten contaminated with E. coli. The CDC says that E. coli can get into well systems via different vectors, including “sewage overflows, sewage systems that are not working properly, polluted storm water runoff, and agricultural runoff. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding.”
They don’t know what caused the problems with their well water. Cairo has some issues with its sewage system, but it seems unlikely that system would have leaked into the wells given the respective locations. It’s more likely be a combination of factors. Cairo is prone to floods, and minor floods aren’t uncommon (the dam project at North Bend helped). There was a big flood in 2008, but frankly even a relatively minor flood could have carried sewage or sewage-contaminated flood water into the wells there.
A flood doesn’t have to be a federal disaster to be a personal disaster.
That was 2010.
Seven Years Without Water
Whatever caused the contamination of their water wells, for seven years now, they’ve been without usable water. And worse, they’ve been without anyone in their corner. This year, among other things not related to our basic infrastructure deficiencies, our state senate representatives fought to raise taxes on the poor to give breaks to the rich. And our current delegate sponsored a bill that would allow gas and oil companies to legally trespass on your property without your permission. He also voted for legislation that would allow more toxins to be discharged into our streams.
That’s what they’re focused on. People are without water, and our representatives are blind to them.
Is a lack of potable, running water really something that citizens of the United States, folks who live right here in the richest country in the world, should be having to fight for, all alone?
Of course it’s not. But here we are.
I talk sometimes about my own water situation: we don’t have potable water in our house, either. To drink, we have to get bottled. However we are set up to catch and filter rainwater in a cistern, and we can use that for bathing and washing. And I have experienced the hassle of having to use bottled for everything, because we did it out here once for 11 days, right after the derecho.
Those eleven days seemed like forever. Just putting a sandwich together and getting some mustard on your finger was a pain in the neck.
And they’ve gone without for seven years?
Eleven days was far too long for me.
Donnie can’t use his water to bathe or shower in, can’t wash dishes with it. Because… wash and rinse your dishes in sewage-contaminated water? Uh, NO.
He says he spends about $250 on bottles of water every month.
That’s a helluva water bill, for not even having anything usable in your pipes.
And he’s not the only one.
Julia Shirley is in the same situation, on the same road with Donnie, a victim of the same contamination. She heats pots of water every day to bathe in. She spends a crazy amount of money just getting bottles of clean water for her house—way more than a regular water bill would be.
“If we had water run here, I could be paying them my money,” Julia explains.
Julia got deathly ill from the contaminated water before they could figure out what was wrong. After being treated for the infection and recovering… it came back, as bad systemic infections can do, sometimes.
She had to be treated again.
Now she bathes in bottles of water she heats on her stove.
It makes me wonder… why are our representatives so set on helping industry rather than helping the people who live out here have access to basic services we should have in any first-world country?
The Town Tried
Now, without any support from our representatives, the little town of Cairo has tried to get grants to extend water just a few hundred feet to reach those without water down here. Three different times.
They were not successful.
Grant writing is a specialized skill—just for reference, the average salary for a grant writer is $66K per year—and it’s hard work that doesn’t always work out. Even when done correctly, you may be competing with who-knows-how-many other little towns with the same desperate infrastructure problems, and folks who are in similar desperate situations.
Cairo has ONE administrative employee. The mayor gets paid $100/month, and town council members each get $25. It’s a job for them just to try to keep the water on for the folks who already have it going to their house. One former council member told me that the job of council members was to get in a wet hole in all weather and fix pipes. And at the end of a days-long struggle when the water was back on again and the pipes were fixed, their hollow satisfaction was: “There’s 6 feet of good pipe.”
In my mind, I can see the other miles of crumbling pipe stretching out in animation beneath the surface, all connected to the one good spot. That’s six feet of shining triumph!
Because then a water line breaks somewhere further up. Or part of the sewer system goes, or a storm drain collapses.
But today… today the weather is beautiful as I go door-to-door. One lady with a lovely house, among the nicest in Cairo, asks me to sit in a white rocker on her porch with her to chat. When I ask what she’d like her representative to fight for, she’s at somewhat of a loss.
“I don’t really know what can be done,” she explains. Her concern is that the town is just deteriorating in general.
A few sidewalks have been fixed, but some, possibly most, are practically non-existent. Some trailers are in great shape; others had been parked on small lots, with hopes of renting them out… but now they sit vacant.
Some houses are nice and well kept. Others may need painted.
Or worse. Because some abandoned houses are just falling in; they’re complete hazards.
It’s an assault on the town’s dignity, and she feels it.
But she doesn’t know how it can be fixed. It’s not like the town is hoarding money they just won’t spend on the right things. They’re just trying to keep the water and sewer up. They worry about the cost of replacing the worn flags they set out for Independence Day, and keep putting off the purchase of new ones.
Crumbling West Virginia
What she’s concerned about is really the story of our whole state: deferred maintenance. Not enough infrastructure investment. An economy that has deteriorated into being dependent on a single industry—fossil fuel extraction—and that industry tends to concentrate poverty rather than alleviate it. It’s an industry that operates on boom-bust cycles, and drives population loss. It causes more wear to roads than it pays in taxes, and threatens drinking water. It reduces property values and threatens property rights.
Educated people can’t easily get a job here in these small towns, so kids that graduate high school and are lucky enough to go to college, they’re just less likely to stay. Burdened with student debt, they can’t afford to stay. And for businesses that might offer jobs for folks without degrees, unless we invest NOW to bring those businesses here, those will go to places with better infrastructure in place, and a better quality of life.
Why come here, when they may not have internet access? Why come when they may not have good roads, or supply lines for any materials they might need? Why come here when WV wants to treat frackwaste runoff as storm water and allow that to go into our drinking water?
As hard as our legislators fought for tax breaks for the wealthy and businesses this year, the truth is that it won’t matter what our business tax climate is—we’re in the middle at number 18, BTW—when everything else we do drives jobs away. Forbes ranks WV as the worst state for business not because of the business tax climate, but because of a lack of educated workers, a lack of laws to protect from discrimination, a lack of growth prospects, and more.
So what do we do this year to make things better? We cut higher ed funding. And that’s the opposite of what we need to do to make WV more attractive to businesses.
Attracting good paying jobs would help, I suggest to my prolocutor. Folks could fix up these old houses if there was some way to support their families once they moved here.
She agrees, mentioning some of the old businesses that used to be here when times were better: a glass factory, a garment factory. Both closed. And now the houses that once held the workers’ families are empty and crumbling.
Some of these old Cairo houses are simply grand. I’ve been inside them. You should see the amazing woodwork. Someone could come here, buy a house for a song, spend a little money to fix it up, and really have a show place.
But for now, our legislators are not working on the right things. And the houses fall into worse and worse disrepair. It’s a real life metaphor for the state.
That’s the thing. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you can’t come here to fix up a house and live. You need a job. And what gas and oil jobs don’t go to out-of-state workers are subject to boom and bust cycles. The boom-bust effect is what we’re looking at with this town of beautiful houses and falling-in houses, all scattered together like confetti.
Some people are holding on… but for how long?
The breeze blows, and the weedy, long grass across the street bends and ripples. “The town used to keep all that mowed down,” she sighs.
I remember that, too, the tidy river bank. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to fish in there?
A lot of people make fun of that slogan that was so popular here in “flyover country”: Make America Great Again. They demand, “When was it great: when black people couldn’t vote? When women couldn’t?” And on and on.
But they might do well to stop snarkily attacking the people to whom we want to reach out.
Because I’m telling you that many folks out here are just thinking of “great again” as just seven years ago, way back in the glorious time when the grass was mowed, the houses weren’t crumbling quite so much, and there was running water in the house.
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