Drinking water from the tap is an exercise in trust that most of us take for granted. But in Martin County, Kentucky, prolonged problems with the water system have many residents worried that their health is at risk. Benny Becker of the Ohio Valley ReSource has the story of how a community in coal country lost faith in both their water and their government.
On any given day in Martin County, Kentucky, the water system loses more water to leaks than it delivers to paying customers through their faucets. The water system is under a state investigation for the third time since 2002. Customers complain of frequent service interruptions and discolored water, and their bills come with a notice that drinking the water could increase the risk of cancer.
This is the state of infrastructure in a county that’s mined many millions of dollars worth of coal since the early 1900s, providing the power required for America’s industries and modern comforts. As with many coalfield communities, all the profit and advances the area’s laborers and natural resources made possible haven’t left much evidence of improvement in the local economy and infrastructure.
Opening a tap is an exercise in trust which most of us take for granted. But in Martin County it’s just one more reason for residents to feel let down by the powers that be; one more chapter in the long story of how the people have lost faith in their government.
Josie Delong lives in Warfield, Kentucky, which is one of Martin County’s bigger towns with a population of 269. Because it’s across a ridge line from Martin County’s water intake near Inez, the county seat, Warfield has had some of the worst recent water struggles in Martin County.
“We drink nothing but bottled water,” Delong said. “I even put bottled water in my kids’ bathroom when they brush their teeth.”
A lot of people in Martin County won’t drink the tap water. Peggy Newsome, a clerk at the local Save-A-Lot supermarket, estimated that at least 75 percent of the people she checks out buy bottled water.
Delong said the water has long had a chemical smell and she worries that it might be contributing to her health problems, including bleeding ulcers.
“So I go to my doctor and the first thing he says is, ‘Contaminated water. How’s your drinking water?’” she said. “Is it caused by the water? I can’t say that 100 percent, but my belief — it is.”
Delong is among many residents who say they have seen water service cut off at times with little or no notice.
The service interruptions relate to the system’s inability to meet peak demands for water. For example, when the temperature drops below freezing, many people leave their taps open to make sure pipes don’t freeze. That creates peak demand on the water system, and last winter in Warfield, it was enough to drain the water tanks.
That left Joe Hammond with a dilemma. Hammond is the public face of the Martin County Water District. He said the lack of water would force the local school to close.
“At night they would shut it down so that they’d have water for schools,” Hammond said.
Before you use water after a loss of service, it’s best to flush the pipes to get out any dirt that’s seeped inside in the meantime. But you can only do that if you know your water’s been cut off.
Hammond said it was a quick decision late at night to shut down water to the Warfield area and that explains why a notice, known as a boil water advisory, didn’t go out until until the next morning.
Delong and others say they never heard anything about a notice, not for that night, or for any of the following nights when the water was again cut off.
The problem with stopping water flow to a section of pipes is that there’s no longer any water pressure to keep out contaminants. That’s especially true in Martin County, where the pipes are so leaky that the water-loss rate has consistently been over 50 percent.
Last June, Martin County State Senator Ray Jones called in several top state officials for a public meeting to address the county’s drinking water issues. The water district’s Hammond tried to explain the county’s system for calling customers affected by a cutoff or boil water advisory. But he was cut off by angry audience members. One man said he’d never heard of anyone getting such a warning. “I’m done with it, it was a lie!” the man shouted and stormed out of the room.
Sewage Stressing System
The other top issue at the public meeting was concern over two disinfection byproducts, Trihalomethanes and Haloacetic acids. Since 2002, these have been showing up on notices sent to customers of the Martin County Water District. The notices inform customers that their water has exceeded maximum contaminant levels, and that long-term exposure can increase the risk of cancer, especially for the elderly, infants, and anyone with a compromised immune system.
According to Joe Burns of the Kentucky Rural Water Association, disinfection byproducts aren’t an issue for most U.S. water systems that draw from groundwater. In Kentucky and the Ohio Valley region, however, many systems draw water from rivers and streams, which opens up more possibility for contamination that needs to be treated with chlorine.
The disinfection byproducts are the result of chlorine interacting with organic molecules. Much of the organic molecules come from what are commonly known as “straight-pipes”. In Martin County, like much of the coalfields, there’s a serious shortage of wastewater infrastructure, which means sewage often gets piped straight into the nearest stream.
Gail Brion directs the University of Kentucky’s Environmental Research and Training Laboratories and has worked on water treatment issues for decades. She calls the amount of sewage in this region’s watershed “as close as I could come to Third World conditions without a passport.”
More sewage in the water source means more chlorine is needed. Nina McCoy, a retired biology teacher, has been testing water around Martin County for nearly 25 years. She said the frequent violations for high levels of disinfection byproducts is an indication of the poor quality of the water coming out of the county’s water treatment plant.
“We’re constantly being told, this is basically your own crap,” McCoy said.
Officials have tried to reassure the public that disinfection byproducts shouldn’t make them afraid to drink their water.
Peter Goodman, the Director of the Kentucky Division of Water, was in attendance at the June meeting in Martin County. He tried to reassure the crowd that they’re not at any great risk. He said the levels are just a little over the standard, that the standard is very conservative, and that since it was recently strengthened many water districts are dealing with the issue.
At the Martin County Water District Office, Hammond shared a handout that emphasizes that the risk of cancer from disinfection byproducts is small, and a worthwhile trade-off if the alternative is water that could potentially make you sick right away.
Martin County’s major industry has also caused massive contamination of surface waters.
Leaks and spills from coal mines and gas drilling operations are common. Many are minor, blackening a stretch of stream or producing mysterious, short-lived slicks. Other spills are disastrous.
That was the case on October, 11, 2000, when a massive coal slurry impoundment, or sludge pond, broke through an old mine shaft underneath. Wolf Creek and Coldwater Creek ran black with sludge, overflowing their banks by up to seven feet, and the millions of gallons of sludge forced the closure of drinking water intakes along miles of downstream rivers.
A decade later, residents could still find residue of the sludge along streams just a few inches below the surface.
The spill and the way it was handled by authorities has further eroded people’s trust in both the county’s water and its leaders.
Some residents complained that there was little warning for residents at the time of the disastrous spill, and a mine safety investigation of the incident was mired in scandal and accusations of a cover up to protect the coal company.
A War on Poverty Battlefield
Now, Martin County is in a really tough situation. Forty percent of the county’s residents live in poverty. Only thirty percent are in the workforce. The coal industry has been laying off workers as it competes with cheaper natural gas, depletes the best coal seams, and relies more on machines.
Hard times here are nothing new. Martin County has been facing many of the same economic and infrastructure challenges for decades and was a highly visible part of one of the country’s most famous efforts to address poverty.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County as he launched the War on Poverty. A government film described it as “a trip to the root of Appalachian poverty” and noted that the area’s economic hardship was “attributable primarily to a general lack of industrialization, and losses in the coal mining industry.”
“Here’s the thing, in 1964 LBJ kicked off the War on Poverty,” said Gary Ball, editor of Martin County’s weekly newspaper, The Mountain Citizen. “Here we are, over 50 years later and we can’t even get decent drinking water.”
Coal’s decline has had an enormous impact on county budgets across Central Appalachia.
Judge Kelly Callaham, the top elected official In Martin County, said the the local government has been forced to make a lot of cutbacks. He said the county is now getting less than a quarter of the tax revenue from coal that it got as recently as three years ago.
“If somebody’d looked at me when we was getting $800,000 a quarter and said, ‘Judge, you’re not gonna get but $150,000 three years down the road’ I’d say you’re crazy man,” Callaham said. “But that’s what happened.”
That drastic loss of income makes it harder to pay for water system improvements.
The Judge said the quick change in coal tax revenue surprised him, but some in the community expressed unhappiness with how the county has handled its funds. Newspaper editor Gary Ball said that the county’s leadership should have been better prepared and made better decisions. He pointed to the county’s recent investment in a $10 million government center as money that could have been better spent improving the county’s water system.
Judge Callaham said he wouldn’t have supported building the courthouse if he’d known how much tax revenue the county would soon lose. He also argued that the old courthouse needed to be replaced because it had issues with lead and asbestos that he suspects caused his health problems.
The dispute over spending priorities is just one more example of the strained relationship between residents and officials. “People just aren’t trustful of their political leaders,” Ball said. “And when you think about it, the leaders haven’t given them a whole lot to win that trust.”
Martin County’s water district is getting help from the Kentucky Rural Water Association, thanks to the state’s Division of Water. The association has sent in technicians to train and assist the county on detecting and repairing leaks.
Joe Hammond said he’s hopeful that this will help the county’s water loss rate continue to drop— it’s approaching 50 percent after previously topping 60 percent. However, Hammond said there isn’t enough money to make the kinds of fixes that are really needed and the patches being made are short-term at best.
“If you have a hole already, it’s just going to get bigger,” he said.
Hammond has a list of prospects for funding. Two options come from the state government— the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority and the Department for Local Government. Those are unlikely to provide the large amounts needed to renovate the treatment plant and start replacing pipes that have been in the ground for as long as fifty years. But they are becoming more plausible, now that the water district has submitted the required financial audits.
Hammond and others in the community seem to have their hopes most firmly set on money from the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund. A proposal pending in Congress, the RECLAIM Act, would allow spending from that trust fund for projects in the region that improve economic possibilities.
Gail Brion has experience with federal funding for water systems from her time working at the Environmental Protection Agency. She says the EPA used to provide a lot more federal money for water systems in places like Martin County, but there was a fundamental shift in how the agency approached funding during the Reagan administration, when she describes the EPA as having gone through a “great dismantling.”
Brion said she’s bothered by how America’s priorities have changed when it comes to water systems and other infrastructure.
“These water systems were established with federal money,” Brion said. “That money has now become a revolving fund that has to be paid back. And when you can’t pay for your services to begin with, how are you going to pay back a loan to make those services better?”
Brion said she’s hopeful that there’s a growing consensus about the importance of investment in the country’s infrastructure. But she’s not sure that will include things such as water systems.
Sadly, the issues in Martin County aren’t that exceptional. Counties across the coalfields and in other rural areas face similar challenges of poor infrastructure, lack of investment, declines in the industrial job base, and polluted watersheds.
Despite the many problems with its drinking water, Martin County doesn’t stand out as a worst case. In 2016 the Martin County Water District reported ten water quality violations and nineteen boil water advisories. That puts the county below average compared to other Kentucky water systems and the number of reported advisories.
Where Martin County does stand out is in its community of hell-raisers: The Mountain Citizen highlights water issues week after week; Josie Delong formed a Martin County Water Warriors Facebook community; and many other outspoken localactivists are making noise.
So while there’s still a lot that needs to be done for the people of Martin County to regain trust in their leaders and their water, one thing is certain: The county has an active community fighting for change, and for clean water.