There’s a secret water crisis in America. Two million people across the US lack access to running water and basic indoor plumbing. Keystone, WV, has gone without reliable water for almost a year. Local Tori Satow is fed up and determined to make a difference.
It takes four trips and six hours for Tori Satow to collect 1,000 gallons of water from the jerry-rigged pipe-hose combo jutting out of the stream near her house. The stream, situated on the side of the shale-rock mountain above her property, is Satow’s most reliable source of water.
Sometimes the task of retrieving that water is extra tedious — especially if precipitation has been scarce and the stream slows to little more than a trickle.
In many parts of the developing world, fetching water is a regular aspect of daily life, but Satow lives in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world.
Backdropped with stunning mountains that glow every color come fall and burst into green when spring rolls around, Satow’s home is perched high up on a hill that looks over the once booming coal town of Keystone, WV.
She has called the town of 232 people home for five years now, and dealing with Keystone’s failing water infrastructure is a daily headache.
The town has been without a consistent water flow for almost a year. On good days, water with low pressure that must be boiled for safe use flows through her taps. On bad days, she turns on the faucet to the sound of silence.
Sometimes, the unsafe, unfiltered water doesn’t flow for weeks on end.
With a mix of bottled water, her 1,000-gallon water storage tank, and the nearby stream, she has figured out how to manage when the water in the municipal system doesn’t flow. Now, she hopes to help the rest of the Keystone community.
Keystone isn’t the only town plagued by a water system reminiscent of the United States in the early 1900s.
More than 2 million Americans lack running water and basic indoor plumbing. Additionally, a whopping 44 million are served by systems that have recently had health violations under the United States Safe Drinking Water Act. While most of the nation takes clean, safe water for granted, marginalized groups — such as rural and low-income communities, people of color, and Native Americans — often do without.
“Access to clean, reliable running water and safe sanitation are baseline conditions for health, prosperity, and well-being. However, they remain out of reach for some of the most vulnerable people in the United States,” according to Dig Deep Water, a nonprofit working to make sure every American has clean, running water.
Satow wound up in Keystone after years of cross-country adventures that defined her late teens and early 20s. “I’ve traveled across the country hundreds of times. I’ve been everywhere and I’ve seen everything,” she told WhoWhatWhy.
Her nomadic lifestyle included hopping trains, exploring the country, and picking up jobs from Alabama to Alaska.
So, when Satow decided it was time to settle down, she knew where she would go. She had seen valleys, rivers, and mountains across the whole country, but nothing compared to the majestic, rolling Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.
House-shopping on Craigslist, she spotted an ad that showed some promise. “I thought it was the coolest house I’d ever seen that I could feasibly buy,” Satow said.
The next day, with her mother Beth, who accompanied her in a 2003 white Toyota Corolla, Satow headed south from their hometown of Canton, OH. Destination: Keystone, West Virginia.
Keystone is located in McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia. Home to about 18,000 people, McDowell has a poverty rate of 35.4 percent. The town of Keystone, which is on the far east side of the mountainous, 533-square-mile county, has an even higher poverty rate: 40.4 percent. (The rate across the US hovers around 12 percent.)
Notably, Keystone is the only majority-black town in McDowell county, with 58 percent of the population identifying as black or African American. In McDowell as a whole, only 8.3 percent of residents identify as black or African American.
The route to Keystone took Satow and her mother over Appalachian backroads that twisted and turned around hills and through valleys and along forested ravines of breathtaking beauty.
After crawling up an unimaginably steep road, Satow came to a gray, two-story clapboard house with white mullioned windows, an expansive porch, and a red brick chimney. Without skipping a beat, she turned to her mother, who doubles as her best friend, and said, “This is it.”
That was in 2013. It took her two years of doing a variety of odd jobs such as running a bed-and-breakfast and working as a personal assistant in New Orleans, to earn enough money for the extensive repairs needed to fix up her dream house. On periodic visits to Keystone to work on her home, she heard that the town was having issues with water access, but she didn’t worry too much about it. Only when she moved in full-time in February 2016 did she realize the gravity of the situation.
Keystone’s current water system has served the town since the early 20th century, when it was designed by the local coal company to supply its employees. “The coal companies, they were just interested in installing the line in the cheapest manner possible,” said Amy Swann, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association.
When the coal industry was mechanized in the mid-1970s, miners began to leave the region in search of work elsewhere. And the water system, which once served over 3,000 residents, was abandoned. Both the people and the resources that maintained Keystone’s access to clean running water were gone, and the neglected system basically fell apart.
“The town has an oversized, dilapidated water system lacking in both resources and competent personnel needed for operation and maintenance,” wrote the director of communications at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), Allison Adler, in an email.
Today, Keystone Municipal Water utility operates without a filtration system and a combination of terracotta and cast iron pipes. Main leaks and burst pipes are a frequent occurrence, causing the interruptions in water supply that bedevil the town.
Some people have reduced their water use to just five gallons a day and have taken to showering under gutter systems when it rains. For reference, the average individual in America uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water per day.
“Community members have finagled the water system to make it work. They don’t know who runs the system, where their water comes from, or what the state of the infrastructure is,”
said Nora Nelson, research manager at Dig Deep Water. “Sometimes [the water] comes out, sometimes not. They pay the rates but don’t get the service,” continued Nelson, who spent two weeks in McDowell county, including Keystone, to investigate the delivery of sewage and water services.
Satow is one of those people who tweaked the system when it failed. Upon moving in, her neighbor told her they hadn’t had water for over a year. She immediately set out to investigate what was going on. Satow followed the pipe down the mountain, into town, under the railroad tracks, and into a dark, musty tunnel, where she found a six-inch cast iron pipe completely unattached to the water valve.
As hard as she tried, she couldn’t budge the hefty pipe. She then recruited her boyfriend and neighbor, and after a lot of trial, a lot of error, and a full day of work in the tunnel, they had water. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The water stopped coming and Satow trudged back down the mountain.
She took up the issue with then-City Manager Nita McKinney, who is a regular when it comes to fixing pipes, although it is not part of her job description. Because of the complete lack of tax base and municipal services in Keystone, McKinney is used to volunteering her time to fix water pipe leaks in town. She is less accustomed to community members bringing their own tools, shovel, and backhoe and stepping beside her to assist, as Satow did.
“Not a lot of people will get down and get their hands dirty, but she doesn’t care. We were up there in the dirt digging and she was right there along with us,” said McKinney. “She’s the type that’s gonna do what she has to to take care of herself.”
Fast forward through a year of intermittent water supply and exhausting house repairs. In October of 2017, Satow’s house caught on fire. When the fire trucks arrived and hooked up to the fire hydrant right in front of her house, they found it was out of commission. They rushed back to town, retrieved the necessary water, and returned. But it was too little too late. She lost half of her house.
“The damage was far more extensive than it would have been if the hydrant was working,” said Nelson.
Two years following that, on May 17, 2019, Satow stopped getting water altogether. Soon after, the rest of the town went dry. Since then, she’s received intermittent water at best. Some days, the water comes back on and she feels hopeful. But then it stops, leaving Satow feeling exhausted and defeated.
Fed up with the situation, she decided to do some research.
For eight years, the entire time Satow had been in and out of Keystone, the town was under a boil advisory. She had no idea. “I was bathing my infant child in this water, putting this water in my coffee, cooking with this water, showering with this water,” she said over the phone, the tone of disbelief still ringing in her voice nine months later.
A boil order is issued when, as in Keystone, the quality of water for utilities is unknown, explained Adler in an email The order advises consumers to let their water boil for at least a minute before using it for drinking, cooking, bathing, tooth brushing, etc.
Stunned, Satow called the West Virginia Bureau of Health and had them test her water for chlorine; they found none. “That meant we were drinking untreated, raw, unfiltered water,” she said.
In Keystone, the water that flows through residents’ taps has “substandard chlorine residual,” meaning that it contains less than the state limit of 0.2 milligrams/liter of chlorine. In other words, it is not adequately protected against microbial growth, and is, therefore, not safe for use.
This is especially worrisome for the town of Keystone, because many households are not connected to a sewer system, do not have a septic system, and rely on straight-piping. Straight-piping is when wastewater, such as sewage, is discharged into the waterways without any treatment.
This essentially means the water from toilets, showers, and such. is going back into the water supply, which is then used for, among other things, drinking water.
It is possible for contaminants to be removed by the water treatment process. However, if the water treatment facility is not adequately maintained, as is the case in Keystone, contaminants would not be properly removed. According to the United States Water Alliance, this can cause serious health concerns, including chronic skin rashes, MRSA, staph infections, and stomach issues such as H. Pylori — the bacterium that has been linked to gastric ulcers and other serious conditions.
It is possible to look at this situation and think that Satow never should have moved to West Virginia, or that the people living there should just leave. But they don’t want to. They love where they live.
“There’s a wonderful sense of belonging in McDowell,” said Nelson. The residents love the community and the culture. People want to stay and thrive in these communities.”
Even Satow, who didn’t grow up there, is extremely attached to this southern tip of West Virginia. “It’s absolutely gorgeous here,” she said. “It’s cheap. I live up on top of a mountain. I’m just in love with West Virginia, I guess,” she said.
Instead of leaving the home she loves, she wants to stay and fight to bring her community clean, safe, and reliable water.
Since she first discovered her water didn’t have chlorine, she estimates she has spent hundreds if not thousands of hours trying to ensure that she has safe and clean water for herself and her daughter, 18-month-old Iris-Rose. She’s been in touch with the state of West Virginia and the EPA, learning as she goes. “I’m very much Erin Brockoviching this whole thing,” she said laughing, referring to the consumer advocate and environmental activist whose story was turned into a movie.
“We don’t have exposure, we don’t have anybody advocating for us and we — the larger we, we the people — are uninformed about what is going on.” She wants to fix all that by starting a nonprofit to make sure residents have access to information about the quality of the water and feel empowered to ask for what they deserve, which she believes is clean and reliable water.
Satow has been approved by the state to start a nonprofit and is waiting for 501c3 approval. With her nonprofit, Appalachia Mountain Flows, she wants to create a large-scale, sustainable solution for everyone.
“To fix our system in our area is going to cost 10 million dollars. And that’s only gonna help the few hundred people in Keystone. But, there are people all over McDowell that don’t have any water.
“I mean, don’t give this money to these little towns, give money to someone who can solve the problem on a larger scale. If everyone hooks up to rainwater systems and has filters, that would be a better way to solve the problem,” she said.
Satow hopes to provide a place where residents can test their water, and where she can provide information about different options for water collection and filtration systems.
Satow has a working system for herself and her daughter, and the variety of farm and house animals she’s taken in over the years. It’s not ideal, but it works. Still, she is intent on helping the people around her.
“It’s not okay that Keystone should suffer, that little kids should have to go to school that haven’t showered for weeks, that people don’t have enough water to drink or cook or flush their toilets,” she said.
Then, she paused for a long time, letting static take over the phone call, before continuing, “I think I’ve always wanted to help other people. I like sticking up for the underdog and I care, I care about these people. They’ve been kind to me and I want to help them. Plus, I like raising hell.”
“I have hope that something or some people can make a change for the residents of this county,” she said. “And I think I’m gonna have to be one of those people.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Christopher Irwin / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).