Straight pipes still a planning, leadership problem in E. Ky.

April 15, 2014 

The essence of dramatic tragedy lies in the futility of efforts to escape an unhappy ending.

The Millstone sewer system in Letcher County has been shut down by the Letcher County Water and Sewer District. It was leaking sewage into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The cost of fixing the system was particularly prohibitive because only a few customers (reportedly four out of 27) were paying their monthly sewer bills.

At the time of the sewer system's installment, circa 1999, the system was the first peat-filter system in Kentucky and widely celebrated across the state. Delegations from the Kentucky River Area Development District, the Kentucky River Authority and Division of Health came to visit Millstone. Grant funds from outside the county through Kentucky PRIDE covered the initial capital costs.

The celebration was warranted. This sewer system was the first (and perhaps only) substantive step towards addressing the county's "straight pipe" problem. Straight pipes direct household water waste into streams and rivers without adequate treatment. Over 1,000 straight pipes have been counted in Letcher County and they continue to pose health risks, damage the environment, and constrain economic development in the region.

Now that the sewer plant is being shut down, I fear that many of the homes will ultimately return to straight pipes. They may have no choice. Though rural from the perspective of distance to metropolitan areas, Millstone, like many housing areas in the county, is too dense to support septic tanks and appropriately sized drain fields. These areas need urban-like water and sewer services.

Some may say that people in Millstone could not afford to pay their bills. If this is true, then this is a problem that must be directly addressed. The U.S., in general, and Kentucky in particular, cannot allow for situations where people are forced by low incomes to pollute the streams where their children play and their downstream neighbors drink.

Everyone knows this is wrong.

One thing is certain, the recent shutdown of the Millstone sewer system is either a failure of planning, a system with costs that could never be sustained, or a failure of political leadership: an unwillingness to actively collect sewer bills, reassess sewer rates and plan for the future.

I'd suggest both played a hand. Regardless, if parts of Eastern Kentucky are to escape the fatalism of dramatic tragedy we had better learn from this mistake and provide better, more substantive leadership in the future.

In this regard, I worry we have a long way to go.

The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg reported that at the January meeting of the district where board members voted to shut down the system, the Division of Water was described as being "generous" in waiving the potential fines to the district for being out of compliance.

For more than 20 years we have collectively failed to address the problem of straight pipes in Letcher County.

Now decisions to hold back fines that would penalize the only project that substantively tried to address this issue are described as "generous." This is simply political expediency cloaked in good will. We will have to do better if Eastern Kentucky is to SOAR into a better future.

Brady Deaton Jr. is associate professor of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph in Canada. He coordinated the North Fork Clean Water Project from 1995-1997 in Letcher County.

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