For Kentucky’s most troubled water system, will infrastructure funds finally bring relief?

Chris Kenning
Louisville Courier Journal
BarbiAnn Maynard of Martin County fills an empty cup with water from a mountainside spring.

INEZ, Ky. — BarbiAnn Maynard pulled her car to a stop along an Appalachian roadside and crouched next to a plastic pipe sticking out of the rock face. 

A stream of cool, clear water poured from the pipe. She filled an empty McDonald’s cup, taking a long gulp at the hillside spot where locals often fill larger containers to take home.

In Kentucky’s Martin County, such makeshift water sources — along with store-bought bottles and those wells still uncompromised by coal — are the only water many local residents will drink.

The tap water?

"Most people don't trust it, don't drink it, don't use it," said Maynard, who lives in Martin County and been a longtime clean water advocate. 

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That's because, for decades, what came from their taps was at times foul-smelling or brown. Some complained of rashes after showers. Breaks in dilapidated lines meant frequent service shutoffs and boil-water advisories.

Since a massive 2000 toxic coal slurry spill and nearly two subsequent decades of problems from mismanagement to leaking pipes, the Martin County Water District has been one of Kentucky’s most notoriously troubled water systems. 

After violating federal water quality standards 90 times since 2001, a recent series of state interventions — including turning operations over to a professional management company in 2019 — has allowed Martin County to meet federal water-quality standards.

But many still distrust it, and officials acknowledge the system remains unreliable, overstretched, dilapidated and indebted.

Seven of every 10 gallons pulled from the Tug Fork River leak through cracked pipes before reaching homes, sometimes allowing matter into the system.

Meanwhile, the lack of backup generators, pumps and functioning clarifiers meant residents were again left without water following recent storms and flooding.

A water intake value sits idle near the Tug River in Martin County, Kentucky

“It’s always just at the breaking point,” said resident Nina McCoy, a retired teacher and member of the Concerned Citizens of Martin County, which has worked with the state and researchers to improve the water.

But help may be on the way.

The residents and leaders of one of the state’s poorest Appalachian counties are hoping for help from $250 million designated by the state for water and sewer projects from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, as well as from President Joe Biden’s push to further bolster infrastructure spending now being debated by Congress.

Few expect Martin to get the $15 million to $20 million needed for "game-changing" upgrades. But with water rates already unaffordable for many in the 11,200-resident county and set to rise again — along with the price tag of badly needed upgrades — Maynard said it presents a chance to vault the long-suffering county forward.

“We’re begging. We need to be at the top of the list,” Maynard said. 

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Fixing the pipes, fixing the perception

The Kentucky Infrastructure Authority will administer the $250 million grant program for drinking water and wastewater. Of that, $150 million will be allocated to counties by population, $50 million will go to improve drinking water systems for unserved rural customers and $50 million will be for large county projects.

While individual designations have yet to be made, officials said Martin County is slated to receive at least $2.1 million.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's office said it expects the funding to “significantly impact the infrastructure replacement that needs to happen for Martin County” and other small systems.

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Jimmy Kerr, chairman of the Martin County Water Board, said “desperately needed” projects includeupgrading its pumping station that's too often kicked offline by storms, upgrades to an overburdened treatment plant in which nothing can currently be taken offline for maintenance, replacing outmoded meters that take so much time to read they cut into repair work and expanding water line repair and replacement. 

Even with all that done, he said, it will be difficult convincing people the water is safe to drink. Two different surveys found more than eight in 10 residents say they don't drink the tap water. 

“The easiest thing we will do is fix the pipes in the ground. The hardest thing to do is fix the perception,” Kerr said.

Statewide, Kentucky faces more than $8.2 billion in needed drinking water infrastructure upgrades in the next 20 years, according to a 2019 projection by the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

Last week, amid Biden’s push to build support for his subsequent $2 trillion plan that includes boosting infrastructure and spending $111 billion for drinking water, a White House report card gave Kentucky a C- for a lack of investment in areas such as water and roads.

Years of neglect

While Martin County has become a "poster child" for some of the worst rural water problems in Eastern Kentucky, it's not the only one, said Lindell Ormsbee, director of the Kentucky Water Research Institute at the University of Kentucky.

Some counties face high water-loss rates (though not as high as Martin) because of mountain terrain and dispersed population that can make laying lines and maintaining them more difficult, said Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.

Coupled with a lack of investment, it can have everyday fallout for communities. In 2017, for example, Harlan area school officials complained that they too often had to close because they lost water. 

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In areas where coal mining has polluted or destroyed private wells, the public water supply is critical, advocates say.

Martin is a mountain coalfield county along the West Virginia border, known for being the place where Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964 to kick off his “War on Poverty.”

Its water is pumped from the Tug Fork River, over a mountain and into a holding lake before it is treated at a small, outdated plant, which was built to serve about 600 people but grew to serve 3,500, officials said.

Kerr said maintenance and upgrades were neglected over the years. Expensive lines were sometimes run to remote areas for political gain. Rates were kept low. The county's small and dwindling population meant costs couldn’t be spread out. And coal severance money, before it declined sharply with coal’s fortunes in recent years, rarely went to the water system.

Water in Martin County posted on the Martin County Water Warriors Facebook page.

“You get a new baseball field or a courthouse, not underground lines no one can see. You can say, I did that, and there’s physical proof. The water system, you don’t see it. And people don’t give money to it,” Kerr said. 

For instance, in 2013, the county took out a $10 million loan for a new government building in Inez, meant to replace an older courthouse. But it ate into the county’s debt capacity and added 25 years of expensive payments.

Efforts in the 1990s by then-governor Paul Patton to expand water service in Eastern Kentucky often led to poorly constructed and ill-designed projects, Ormsbee said.

Since 2002, Martin County has been investigated by state agencies at least three times for financial mismanagement, service interruptions and excessive water loss. The Public Service Commission once called it the "most poorly operated water district in the state of Kentucky.”

Water problems made headlines in 2000, when a nearby coal impoundment ruptured, sending 300,000 gallons of toxic coal slurry waste into the Tug Fork River.

In its wake, problems continued. And in 2018, a series of failures resulted in two weeks of water shutoffs for most of the county as the system teetered on the brink of financial collapse. At one Fiscal Court meeting, residents' anger boiled over amid shouting and one arrest. 

In December that year, then-Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear recommended a state takeover.

'I drink it every day'

On local Facebook pages, residents share photos of cloudy water, debris edging the water in toilets, darkened water filters and the latest boil-water advisory and illnesses they attribute to the water. Some local nursing homes and businesses purchased pricey filters.

Gina Patrick, a local hairdresser who drinks well water, said about four years ago her grandson, now 13, had stomach problems that went away in the summer when he was out of school. She believes it was tap water.

“I said, ‘If I catch you drinking that city water, I’ll ground you till the cows come home,’” Patrick said.

But things have vastly improved in the last couple of years, Ormsbee said.

In late 2019, the PSC ordered the water district to hire an outside company to take over all daily operations. Alliance Water Resources has boosted training and service, upgrading billing and mapping and finishing overdue internal audits. The county has also received Abandoned Mine Lands grants, some of which have been designated for water.

Martin County resident Gina Patrick near one of the wells on her property.

But bids for other work on the treatment plant and water intake came back over budget, so some of the work has stalled.  

In the last year, a collaboration among the state’s Environment Cabinet, the Public Service Commission, the Martin County Water District, Martin County Concerned Citizens and other stakeholders has worked to accelerate change. 

"The water is safe, and it’s clean and good to drink. I drink it every day,” said Alliance Water Resources Division Manager Craig Miller, who argues the water meets the same standards as systems across the state.

But for Maynard and some others, a study released by the University of Kentucky last year gave them pause.

Researchers who studied tap water collected at 97 homes over a one-year period found water at times exceeded maximum contamination levels for cancer-causing disinfection byproduct at some homes, but still met EPA guidelines that are based on averages.

Disinfection byproducts such as haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes occur when organic matter interacts with chlorine during the water treatment process. The study noted a slightly higher rate of bladder cancer in Martin County compared to the U.S., as a whole.

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And it pointed out 51% of participants reported discolored water, usually after outages, and 66% reported bad taste or smell. One quarter said it irritated or burned their skin.  The study revealed only 12% of respondents used tap water for drinking. 

“I was getting ready for a water board meeting a year or so ago, right before COVID. And I was washing my hair. The water belched, and mud dropped in my hair,” Maynard said. "I get mudwater."

Replacing water lines and upgrading the system could help reduce that, said Ormsbee. But long term, officials say, ratepayers, not grants, must sustain the system.

But a report in 2019 by the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center found paying for the water is unaffordable to nearly half of Martin residents. The county had some of the state’s higher water rates. About 36% of the population lives in poverty and 18% earns less than $10,000 a year. 

Already hiked by more than 40% since 2018, officials are seeking another increase. Miller said the average bill is about $56 a month. 

Tired of packing water

Still much further down the road is the expensive task of expanding service to more people in the rural county, who face their own set of water challenges.

On a ridge along the Martin and Johnson county line, Sue McGinnis lives among a cluster of homes. Her family’s well was made unusable by coal mining. They buy from a county kiosk using tokens, trucking it to tanks on their property, though still only use it for cooking and bathing, not drinking.

Water treatment plant in Martin County, Kentucky.

The water kiosk stopped working several months ago and was only recently being fixed, she said, forcing them to travel to a spring. 

“My 19-year-old granddaughter moved out because she was tired of packing water,” she said last week as officials worked to fix the system. “I should be able to able to have to the amenities everyone else has.”

While running lines to some areas may never be cost-effective, officials know reliable water will also be necessary to attract business and development in the wake of coal's decline. 

But for locals, distrust of the water and government leaders runs deep. Many say they’ll never drink it again.

Case in point: Miller, who runs the management company now operating Martin's water system, said his son's high school class was recently assigned a persuasive essay. Nearly all children in the class, except his own son, wrote about why the water was bad in Martin County.

Derek Stepp, a Martin County Fiscal Court magistrate who was sweeping a parking lot on a recent day, said he understands why people feel that way given the county's history.

“I’m not saying our water is fine,” he said. “But at what point when our water is safe to drink, do the residents start believing it. Will they ever start believing it?”

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at ckenning@gannett.com or follow on Twitter @chris_kenning