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EWB students deliver hope to community members in Prenter

A photo of three Engineers Without Borders members in Prenter.

 Morgan King, third from left, led a team of EWB members on a trip to Prenter.

Nine members from West Virginia University’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders traveled to Boone County during spring break in an attempt to provide relief to residents of Prenter, who have been living without a maintained water source for more than 10 years.

Prenter was once a booming coal community with 150-plus thriving residents. Today the population has dwindled to just 60 who deal with the daily struggle of not having a clean water supply. The water system was established by what is now known as Honey Island Coal with the intention of serving the mining complex located there, as well as residents within the Prenter community. When the coal company left the area in 2007 and eventually filed for bankruptcy, the abandoned water system quickly fell into disarray.

Residents, who still rent their land from the coal company, have been under a continuous boil-water order since December 5, 2007, and the water system has been unmaintained ever since.

According to J.D. Douglas, district engineering supervisor with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the untreated water has not met disinfection requirements for bacteria and virus removal for several years and is heavily laden with hydrogen sulfide rendering it unsafe for consumption.

“The citizens of the community have tried the best they can to at least keep the water flowing but have faced many obstacles,” said Douglas. “There is no formal city government in this area to protect the water system so vandals have broken into the equipment rooms to steal copper and have also destroyed the controls.”

Residents, desperate for some relief, are fearful that asking too many questions about the water quality will cause the coal company to uproot them from their homes. Morgan King, a civil and environmental engineering major from Charleston, learned about the issues in Prenter while interning for Douglas last summer. She believed that her fellow WVUEWB members could provide them with the help they needed.

“While interning at the WVDHHR, I became aware that there were 13 abandoned water systems in West Virginia, with Prenter’s being the worst,” said King. “WVUEWB had already completed several water improvement projects internationally so we thought it would be a good idea to bring similar aid to those here in our state.”

On March 4, Douglas and a group of engineering students traveled to Prenter to begin an assessment of the community’s water quality and equipment. They found that extensive work would need to be completed before the water system could be restored. They quickly got to work.  

It was determined that they would first need to resurface the water storage and contact tank to ensure that the tanks would remain a viable location to store clean water for the community.

“This included removing paint, treating rust spots and power washing the surface, which was a significant challenge without a water supply," said King. "We had to dig trenches to collect rain water just to operate the washer and clean the tank.”

To complicate matters further, a storm had recently come through the area and wiped out power to the community. The community’s households receive electricity through Appalachian Electric Power, who quickly resolved the outages. However, the electrical substation that powers the water system is owned and managed by the absent coal company.

Following the storm the three phase power lines that had been installed by the coal company were removed entirely, leaving the water system without a power source. The team was able to rally the Boone County Commissioners Office into providing a generator to run the water pump. After two days the generator was removed, and residents were once again left without water, treated or untreated, flowing from their faucets.

The team was unable to power equipment or collect water samples from resident’s homes, a primary goal for the trip. They were able to collect samples from the surrounding water shed, but without testing the water from the homes, the results of the water quality tests would remain inconclusive until further investigation.

During their short four day trip, the team was able to finish resurfacing, priming and painting the contact tank, which will make future maintenance and upgrades much easier to complete.

In order for routine inspections to occur once they begin treating the water, extensive work needs to be completed on the overgrown and corroded access road that leads to the water system. The team was unable to use the road, forcing them to hike through brush and rough terrain to access the water tanks. Improving the road will be a laborious process that will require the use of heavy equipment and a large amount of volunteers to complete, but it is a necessary step to move the project forward.

They also discovered that the drainage system at the location of the tanks was extremely poor. Rain water had saturated the ground so much that knee-deep mud pockets were observed around the equipment.

”At one point the marshy ground hindered restoration work so much that we had to dig a 100-foot labor-intensive trench in order to rero ute the water away from the tank bases before we could continue ,” said King.

Much of the equipment in the control room of the well house will need to be repaired or replaced. They will also have to establish a reliable, long-term power source to run the equipment, which will require new power lines to be installed and services with an electrical company to be established.

While this may seem like a daunting amount of work, the team is confident that with a clear plan in place they will still be able to bring relief to the community of Prenter.

“The short-term goal for the project is to restore the water system to a point where at least disinfection and aeration is occurring to remove viruses, bacteria and hydrogen sulfide from the water,” said Douglas. “There is also an immediate need for a protective fence around the well house and contact tank to avoid future damage and vandalism once the system is repaired.”

The long term goal for WVUEWB and the WVDHHR is to establish the community as a non-profit association, which will allow residents to collectively become the legal owners of the water system.

“There will be a level of responsibility that the community will assume if they take ownership, but there are several community members who are eager to assume leadership roles and manage the water system,” said King. “We are using our resources to consult multiple professionals to ensure that we are setting the community with the best possible chance of achieving, and maintaining, the goal of having a clean water supply.”

On March 31, King will travel to Charleston to attend Protect West Virginia Day at the West Virginia Legislature where she will speak with several state representatives about the abandoned water systems in the state, and the conditions in Prenter.

“I have talked to a few representatives who were unaware that there are still abandoned water systems in West Virginia,” said King. “In order to give these communities access to clean water, WVEWB will need significant resources, which will be difficult to acquire if people are unaware that there is a problem. We are hopeful that getting the word out about the issues and struggles the residents in these communities deal with every day that some agency or company will want to step in and help.”

Many more trips to Prenter will be necessary to improve water conditions for the community but Douglas hopes that partnering with WVUEWB will bring some credibility and much needed attention to the conditions in Prenter.

“Providing assistance to this community through improved water service and public health is going to be greatly appreciated,” said Douglas. “Not many options existed to help this community. When the residents found out that a group from WVU was getting involved, it provided them with a much needed sense of hope.”

Some members of WVUEWB hope to visit to Prenter in May to complete additional work. During the trip they will attempt to test the water supply again, complete the restoration on the water storage tank and begin some of the labor that will be required to move forward with installing new equipment.

“Bringing clean water to Prenter is going to be a long and laborious process,” said King. “But WVUEWB is committed to providing relief to this community and hopefully others in the future.”



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