The West Virginia Alternative Wastewater Treatment Coalition (AWTC) is one of the grantees from The Greater Sum’s 2018 cohort.
Blog contributor Mindy Ong caught up with Professor Katherine Garvey, co-founder of the AWTC and Director of the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law, to understand what motivated her to start the AWTC, and what’s next in store for the Coalition.
What started as an informal conversation over lunch seeded a statewide multi-agency collaboration that advocates for affordable alternative wastewater treatment options, particularly for rural or low-income communities.
Katherine Garvey, co-founder of the West Virginia Alternative Wastewater Treatment Coalition (AWTC), relates candidly, “The Executive Director of West Virginia Rural Water, the former Executive Director of Canaan Valley Institute and I used to have lunch and complain about straight-piping. We thought it would be a good idea to formalize and expand our discussion to additional experts.”
Straight-piping is a process where raw sewage such as that from toilets and washing machines is discharged directly into streams. In parts of West Virginia, up to two-thirds of homes have no wastewater treatment, and straight piping is used in up to 140 municipalities. According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, thousands of miles of streams are considered “impaired” because of high fecal bacteria counts. In almost all cases, communities without access to wastewater treatment are poor, rural, the site of current or past environmentally degrading resource extraction, and/or comprised of predominantly minority residents. These communities have a limited voice in local political decisions and virtually no role in shaping infrastructure investment policy.
Investments in infrastructure traditionally favor heavily engineered solutions. In rural areas, wastewater treatment through central sewer lines averages $40,000 per home in areas where the assessed value of a home may not reach $10,000. This makes it economically unviable for very small rural communities to adopt.
The AWTC started in 2012 and formalized its goals and vision in 2016. It aims to improve water quality and health through affordable decentralized wastewater treatment in West Virginia via research, policy and collaboration with decision makers and community stakeholders. The Coalition’s focus is on communities that:
Are tackling inadequate sanitation services where traditional sewer and onsite systems, such as septic, are not appropriate for technical, socioeconomic, or sustainability reasons
Are transitioning rural communities facing growth and development or economic and population contraction
Include residents facing socioeconomic hurdles (eg. low income, older homes, older residents)
Have environmental, economic development, or health concerns related to inadequately treated wastewater
The AWTC has come a long way since 2012, but it has not been an easy journey. Coalition members went to the Public Service Commission in 2014 to sell the idea of alternative, more cost effective wastewater treatment technologies, but were unsuccessful. One issue faced was that public service districts in West Virginia do not have the resources to work through the approval process and hence find it difficult to adopt new technology.
It was not until 2018, with support from the Greater Sum Foundation and resources to support partnership building and research, that a breakthrough occurred. The AWTC identified and analyzed six new alternative wastewater treatment systems with the potential to improve health and environmental outcomes, and found technologies that cost close to $14,000 per home, whereas the average cost for alternative wastewater treatment in West Virginia has been approximately $40,000 per home. It presented its findings to the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Public Service Commission, and they were very well received.
Wastewater treatment is a very complex subject involving accounting, legal, and technical aspects. One thing that stands out about the Coalition is how it brings together the strengths of different partners to address a multi-faceted issue. The Coalition has a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers including a member of the state’s Sewer Advisory Committee, an international wastewater consultant, a member of the Governor’s transition team for economic development, two wastewater engineers, and the Executive Director of West Virginia Rural Water. Today, it has expanded to include representatives of state agencies and the State Public Service Commission as well as an attorney specializing in utility work.
“The research completed as part of our Greater Sum Foundation grant really highlights strengths of our Coalition. The issues surrounding inadequate wastewater treatment are so complex, it is nearly impossible for one single person to have all the expertise needed. Our Greater Sum project was a great example of how our partners brought different expertise to the table to make policy recommendations based on legal and technical analysis”, says Katherine.
When asked what advice she has for organizations or communities that are trying to tackle difficult and possibly daunting issues, Katherine reflects, “Keep students and younger folks involved. We are blessed to have the energy and optimism of students and AmeriCorps VISTAs.” She adds, “It is one thing to have the passion for solving a problem, but it takes time, attention, and resources to develop practical solutions. Be patient. Celebrate small victories.”
As the Coalition has grown, its challenges have evolved. “We have had people transition on and off the Coalition and need to keep training and learning from our new members,” explains Katherine. This will be even more crucial as the Coalition embarks on its next step – a pilot. “Our Coalition is looking for funding to implement the research finalized in 2018,” she says. Using existing systems as case studies, it will continue to search for an appropriate service district and target community for a pilot project to test the feasibility of the technologies found.