The people who live in Huntleyville, Kentucky do not take their drinking water for granted.
Seventeen-year-old Aleigha Sloan says the tap water is “absolutely dangerous.” Her family does not touch tap water unless it is necessary, like for showers. In fact, she does not know of anyone who uses tap water unless absolutely necessary.
They fetch water for cooking from the local spring.
BarbiAnn Maynard, 41, said:
You take [clean water] for granted until you don’t have any. I think that’s the attitude of a lot of people right now, but I don’t think they understand how close they are to it happening to them.
Americans across the country, from rural Appalachia to urban areas like Flint, Michigan and Compton, California, are struggling with the lack of clean, reliable drinking water. At the heart of the water crisis is an ageing system, a crumbling infrastructure, and the lack of funds to upgrade.
Moreover, 50 percent of water utilities, serving 12 percent of the population, are privately owned. The mix of public and private water utilities confounds efforts to mandate improvements or level penalties. Even if customers complain about the poor water quality, it seems there is little that is being done.
Nationally, drinking water is delivered through one million miles of pipeline, most of which was laid in the early to mid-20th century, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The pipes are nearing the end of their lifespans.
In 2017, a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that America’s water systems received a near-failing grade. The report estimated that there were 240,000 water line breaks a year nationwide.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it will cost $400 billion to fix the water crisis. This burden would be largely covered by taxpayers, who generally do not have the extra money. The burden would be particularly heavy in places like Martin County, one of the poorest counties in the nation.
Martin County Water Crisis
Martin County has 12,000 residents that have to deal with off-colored, stinky tap water, and that is if the water runs at all. The Martin County Water Warriors Facebook page is used for residents to post videos of their water, share boil water advisory notices or try to learn how widespread an outage is.
This is why the Maynard family does not drink the tap water. They spend $30 a week on bottled water for drinking. That is in addition to the $65 water bill. This water is only used for cleaning and flushing the toilets.
Some county residents even bathe their babies in bottled water to avoid exposure to the contaminated drinking water. Others store jugs of water near the bathroom in case the water stops flowing from the tap during a shower.
The decades-long water problem in Martin County illustrates how complex the issue is.
Leaks in the pipes that carry water throughout the county result in substantial losses of treated water – nearly 65 percent in 2016.
These leaks create a vacuum that sucks in untreated water from the ground and delivered to people’s homes.
This is worrisome given the region’s history of industrial and mining industries. In October 2000, a large coal sludge spill dumbed over 300 million gallons of toxic waste, including heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, into the Martin County river system, which is the main source of drinking water. Thick black sludge ran downstream for miles spilling over onto roads and lawns.
Even after officials announced the water was safe, the trauma from the spill created mistrust that carries over to today.
A University of Kentucky professor of civil engineering, specializing in water infrastructure, Gail Brion says that concern is warranted.
The treatment plant operators can’t control the quality of the water in the pipes if they cannot keep the pipes intact. This is really not on the water quality coming out of the plant. It is on what happens to the water as it goes through this leaky straw.
The Martin County Water District is a private utility that manages the county’s water and they reported 29-line breaks in 2017. The water district advised residents to boil their water in case of contamination. There have been a multitude of other infrastructure-related issues, such as failing intake pumps.
The water district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in September 2018, to rent a pump in hopes the problem would be fixed, however, it was not enough. The water is so low, the utility board declared a state of emergency because the system is near collapse. There is a real chance the county could run out of water.
The Martin County Water District
In 2002, Mountain Citizen, the local paper, prompted the first state investigation into the Martin County Water District. Since then, there have been several investigations and audits by the Public Service Commission, which is the agency that regulates utilities in the state.
The Public Service Commission has recommended a wide range of ideas from maintenance improvements to better money management to improved water testing. Most of these recommendations were not implemented.
The Martin County Water District is privately owned, this means it falls outside state jurisdiction. There is little the state governing body can do other than investigate, make recommendations and charge fines.
Another investigation was opened in 2016, by the Public Service Commission. This investigation is still ongoing.
Residents of Martin County Rise Up
Retired public school teacher, Nina McCoy, 61, was galvanized by the 2000 coal sludge spill. She is one of the most vocal water district activists in Martin County. McCoy attends almost every meeting related to county water issues. Sometimes she spends all day driving to and from the state capital to attend hearings.
A lawyer from the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Mary Cromer has stepped up to represent the citizens of Martin County for free. Cromer regularly travels to the county seat to help organize local residents.
One issue is the area’s century-long reliance on the coal industry, but it is not the only issue.
This isn’t just confined to Martin County. This isn’t just confined to Appalachia. We have dilapidated infrastructure all over this country. And so if you’re going to have rural areas that are going to survive, much less thrive, you’ve got to pay attention to these critical infrastructure needs, says Cromer.
Change in Martin County
Change is happening slowly in Martin County. The state attorney general made an announcement in June that he would be opening an independent investigation into the water district. The investigation will specifically focus on the mismanagement of money. At the beginning of 2018, most of the board of the Martin County Water District resigned. New leadership has been brought in to assist in righting the system.
Nevertheless, it takes money to fix the system. The utility is $1 million in debt. It will take millions of dollars to upgrade the system. Martin County simply does not have the money.
The board treasurer, Jimmy Kerr, wanted to take on the position to make the county better for his daughters, however, he believes it is a “daunting task.”
If we don’t get our finances in order, we will never be able to give the people of Martin County the water that they want, according to Kerr.
Recently, the Martin County Water District received $5 million in a federal grant. However, this is not enough money. The water district is planning to dramatically raise rates. This has not happened in years. The district has angered residents by asking for a 50 percent permanent rate increase.
Kerr says, I know who I’m hurting. But there’s no one coming in on a white horse to save us. The people of this county did not create this mess, but we’re the ones who are going to have to fix it.
Most residents agree that they are going to have to dig deep and work together to fix the problems.
By Jeanette Smith
NPR: ‘You Just Don’t Touch That Tap Water Unless Absolutely Necessary’
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