Martin County in rural eastern Kentucky has faced water quality and access issues for years. This month, county Judge Executive Kelley Callaham declared a state of emergency in response to the widespread water outages in the area. And any water that residents do get is often too contaminated to drink. Now the community — which has a 40 percent poverty rate and widespread unemployment — faces a nearly 50 percent rate increase to their annual drinking water bill.
On Friday, the Public Services Commission will hold an emergency hearing to decide whether the proposed rate increase will go into effect. If it does, it would add roughly $237 per year onto a typical household’s bill and make it the second highest rate in the state. So far PSC has received almost 50 written complaints in response to the proposed rate change, the commission told ThinkProgress.
“This is a fundamental justice matter,” Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “People don’t want to pay any more for water they can’t drink and that they don’t have a consistent supply of.”
The rate increase of 49.5 percent for Martin County Water District customers was announced earlier this month. The news came at the same time as the water district began shutting off water service each night during the second week of January due to water shortages. This left about 1,000 people entirely without running water for several days.
The district said on its Facebook page that water shortages were arising due to storage tanks being drained because of “high water usage, busted meters, etc.” Local reports also state the district pointed to high water usage being the result of people leaving their taps running to keep pipes from freezing.
Martin County, however, has suffered from cracked and leaking water infrastructure for years. This has caused problems around lower water pressure and contaminated water. According to the state Public Service Commission, the water loss rate has reached 60 percent in recent years — four times higher than the 15 percent loss rate allowed under state standards. In other words, more than half of the water leaks into the ground instead of reaching homes.
There is also a countywide issue of two chemicals polluting the water: trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. According to the local Lexington Herald Leader, there are warnings on the district’s water bills suggesting that elderly people, infants, and those with compromised immune systems consult their doctors about their exposure risk. Overall, there are 88 water quality violations listed on record on the Environmental Protection Agency’s online database for the county — 26 of these were first reported since 2015.
People in Martin County have been relying on bottled water for years. “Folks who live on $750 a month can’t really afford to be buying [bottled] water but that’s the reality of the situation,” Cromer said.
Community members have taken to Facebook to share their experiences on the public group Martin County Water Warriors. There are numerous posts about getting skin rashes, dirty water, and fears over bathing children.
“The water system failures in Martin County are affecting the health and education of area children,” Amy Guerrieri and Jenifer Howard, co-founders of local charity RAMP, said in a statement. “School is being disrupted because of lack of water in the district, and when children miss school, they miss meals. The systemic water problems have far-reaching consequences and must be addressed immediately.”
Due to the chronic infrastructure problems, and the fact that the district is paying to take in and treat more water than reaches their customers, the district is facing serious financial issues. According to district officials, the water system needs $13.5 million in repairs; the district’s annual budget is $2 million. In a letter to the county, members of the board of the Martin County Water District described the situation as “dire” and their financial status as “bleak”.
As Cromer explained, the “financial problems are closely related to the distribution problems and the water quality problems.” Money is needed, it’s just a matter of “how much and where it comes from,” she said. Cromer has called for immediate federal assistance in order to help fix the community’s water issues. Representing the group Concerned Citizens of Martin County before the state Public Service Committee, Cromer filed a motion on January 23 to intervene in the PSC’s proposed rate increase to ensure that “any rate approved… is just and reasonable and does not unjustly discriminate against any Martin County Water District (‘Martin District’) customer.”
State regulators however say water is a local responsibility, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
According to Food and Water Watch, federal funding for water infrastructure is at its lowest in decades, declining 82 percent from the government spending $76.27 per person in 1977 down to $13.68 in 2014. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch has called the situation a “war on America’s poorest.”
The group has now called on Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) to investigate the situation and provide immediate federal funding for Martin County.
Water contamination in Martin County dates back nearly two decades when a coal sludge spill polluted local water resources. In October, 2000, a slurry holding pond burst leaking what looked like dark goo into the creeks, blackening 100 miles of waterways.
“Martin County’s water issues are long standing, and so is the poverty in Eastern Kentucky,” Hauter told ThinkProgress via email. “Coal barons have taken the profits and left the community suffering from deep economic problems and the contamination from the coal industry.”
“It’s a story about how the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuel extraction has hurt communities and destroyed water resources, but it’s also an example of the sort of water challenges dozens of communities are facing as our aging infrastructure is left to crumble, with federal funding to help communities maintain these systems at the lowest point in decades.”
Martin County isn’t the only community facing these issues. This month’s news comes on the two-year anniversary of the federal emergency declaration in Flint, Michigan. Other Kentucky counties have also recently seen residents going without water, with many under a boil-water advisory. And in North Carolina, the state has been accused of mishandling the potential contamination of drinking water from a 2014 coal ash spill.