Crumbling infrastructure in many areas of Kentucky has left residents scrambling for clean water, desperate to protect their children, and fearful of scary side effects for their own health.
Heather Blevin, who lives in Lovely, Kentucky, first noticed her well water turning brown and salty. When she hooked up her family’s home to the municipal water supply, it actually got worse — she tells the Washington Post that her water now smells like bleach, appears to be the color of urine, and makes her 7- and 8-year-old children itch after their baths.
“It shouldn’t be like that,” says Blevins, who diligently follows the county’s water Facebook page for updates for “boil water advisories.” One advisory posted on April 4 wasn’t lifted until April 11.
Blevin can’t use her water, yet her bills keep going up. They’ve recently doubled from $19 to $40, straining her budget. She also sets aside money from her monthly $980 Social Security check for chemical-free baby wipes for her children and bottled water.
This region of Kentucky is like many others in Appalachia’s coal country, according to the Washington Post. In 2018, water service was shut off to many residents, and the attorney general opened a criminal investigation into mismanagement allegations, the Post reports. The Kentucky House has passed legislation asking Gov. Matt Bevin (R) to declare a state of emergency to make funds available to fix the broken water system.
State Rep. Chris Harris (D) argued for the state of emergency, warning that Martin County’s problems could soon spread.
“As the infrastructure deteriorates around the country, we are going to see more and more Martin Counties,” he told the Washington Post.
The nation’s drinking water was given a D grade in 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, pointing to the US' ancient pipes, which were designed to last 75 years but are a century old. In the US, leaks contribute to a 14% loss of treated water; in this region of Kentucky, it’s closer to 70%.
Fixing this problem carries a hefty price tag. The American Water Works Association warns that $1 trillion is needed to support the next 25 years of demand across the country.
Flint, Michigan, has been dealing with a deadly water crisis since 2014. Nearly 100,000 residents have been exposed to dangerously high lead levels from old pipes.
In Kentucky’s Martin County alone, repairs are estimated to be more than $10 million. While that’s a high price tag for any county, it’s especially staggering for an economically depressed region that has long been deeply in debt. Martin County is where President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his War on Poverty in the 1960s.
At one point, local residents’ utility bills carried warnings that “prolonged exposure to contaminants could lead to problems with the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system and an increased risk of cancer,” the Post reports. (These notices were removed after the chlorination process was changed, the water board chairman told the Post.)
A new high school being built in the region will not have clean water. And investigations of corruption abound. The attorney general is looking into where money from a $3 million grant from the Coal Severance Fund went.
Greg Scott is the water district’s new general manager. He hands out bottled water to visitors, but is hopeful that Martin County will soon have clean drinking water.
“We can climb out of the hole,” he says.
He has his work cut out for him. To deliver water to homes in this hilly region, it must be forced through pipes under high pressure, which is technologically challenging. Any leaks suck in sediments that, when mixed with treatment chemicals, create hazards.
This movement toward accountability and structural changes hasn’t changed residents’ mind about the safety of the local water. One, BarbiAnn Maynard, says three of her neighbors have recently been diagnosed with dementia, and her father also has unexplainable neurological symptoms. She points to the “central nervous system” warning on the water bills as a possible cause.
So now she’s not taking any chances. She regularly drives 30 minutes to fill plastic jugs from a hose alongside a 4-lane highway that has tested positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria, she tells the Post. She’d rather boil that than drink her local tap water.
Volunteers have stepped in to improve residents’ access to clean water. Earlier this month, retired teacher Cathy Carter delivered bottled water in a giant U-Haul as part of a group called Kentucky Teachers in the Know
“It makes me emotional that people have to deal with this in the 21st century,” Carter said, “in the country that’s supposed to be so great.”