Politics & Government

‘You can’t drink this crap.’ County’s water can be gray, brown or yellow — if there is any

A murky glass of water from the faucet of a Warfield resident, posted in September on the Facebook page of the Martin County Water Warriors.
A murky glass of water from the faucet of a Warfield resident, posted in September on the Facebook page of the Martin County Water Warriors. Martin County Water Warriors

The people of eastern Martin County never know what they’ll get when they turn on their faucets.

It might be nothing; their tap might be dry. Or they might get spurts of gray, brown or yellow liquid peppered with crud. They might get a milky fluid with a harsh odor that contains excessive levels of disinfectant chemical byproducts. Or they might get clean drinking water.

Martin County schools, which are installing 20 drinking fountains with filtration systems to allay parents’ concerns, canceled a day of classes in September because of unreliable water. At the Warfield Dairy Bar and Diner, poor water service forces employees to disconnect the soda machine and hustle over to the IGA for the plastic jugs of water they’ll need to cook. In hundreds of area kitchens, families reach daily for bottled water.

“You can’t drink this crap,” said David Michael McCoy, 38, sitting in a park near his home in the town of Warfield. “It’s bad enough you have to bathe in it and wash your dishes in it. It either smells like bleach or it smells like sewage. It smells like the stuff I clean my paintbrushes with at work.”

McCoy and dozens of his neighbors post complaints — along with videos and photos of foul water in their homes — on a Facebook page called Martin County Water Warriors. They also use the page to exchange information about the county’s frequent water outages and boil-water advisories.

“Does anyone have any info on the very low water pressure in Huntleyville, almost to the Pike County line? We have almost no water at all right now,” one Water Warrior posted Sept. 19. “My husband gets home from work in the mines at 3 a.m. The least he could expect is a shower!!!” The next day, another member announced: “Day 2 no water on Long Branch.”

Their online protests have drawn the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted pictures of a sink full of brown Martin County tap water at least twice this year on her own Facebook page. “Martin County, Kentucky. Oh, what a mess,” Brockovich wrote Sept. 6. “I received a call this morning from a consumer whose children were told to bring water to school — then I called the school district, and they had closed the schools.”

Residents say they feel like second-class citizens. If a wealthy neighborhood in Louisville or Lexington lost reliable access to water, “the problem would be fixed just like that,” McCoy said, snapping his fingers. Then he pointed across the coffee-colored Tug River at West Virginia, just a few hundred yards away. “But we’re hidden out here at the tip of Kentucky, and we’re poor and we’re rural. So nobody really cares about us.”

Murky water flows from the faucet in a bathtub in eastern Martin County in late September 2016.

A local problem

For more than a decade, state regulators in Frankfort have monitored — but not fixed — systemic failures at the Martin County Water District, which serves a population of about 12,300. They’ve recommended many improvements for the district’s dilapidated equipment, much of it at least 40 years old, as well as its struggling management. They’ve levied small fines for continued violations of water quality rules.

Yet the district’s water loss rate remained a staggering 60 percent last year — one of Kentucky’s worst loss rates, and four times the recommended maximum. For every 10 gallons of water sucked from the Tug River and pumped eight miles uphill to the treatment plant, where it is filtered and treated with chemicals, six gallons subsequently leaked from the several hundred miles of pipes snaking through mountainous terrain to homes and businesses.

This is more than an expensive waste for the district and its customers, who pay about $40 per month for 4,000 gallons. Leaky pipes lower water pressure. In isolated Martin County communities like Wolf Creek, Meathouse and Frog Pond, roughly 10 miles east of the county seat of Inez, low pressure prevents water from reaching taps. When pressure is restored, water roars back with a velocity that scours the inside of decaying lines, churning out a foul liquid at the end.

One old lady not long ago called me and said, ‘I had to go into the back of my commode and dig all this mud out to make it work again.’ And you hear that kind of thing a lot. You have to clean the muck out of your toilet or the whole thing gets gummed up.

Gary Ball, editor of The Mountain Citizen

There also is a countywide problem with excessive amounts of two chemicals — trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, or THMs and HAAs — left over from the disinfection process. At elevated levels, THMs and HAAs can irritate the eyes and skin, and they have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Warnings on the district’s water bills suggest that infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems consult their doctors about exposure risks.

State regulators say water is a local responsibility over which they have limited authority. Martin County owns the water district; its judge-executive and fiscal court appoint the district’s five-member supervisory board. There is no legal mechanism to let the state seize control of a failing water district, as it can a failing school system, regulators say.

“What we try to do is take them from where they are to where they need to be. But I don’t really have a tool to force them at this point,” said Pete Goodmann, director of the Kentucky Division of Water, who traveled to Martin County in June to speak with angry residents at a public hearing.

“This is a local government. This is something they really need to take seriously,” he added. “People are rightly upset. They’re paying for that water. They expect reliable, clean, safe water.”

Longtime Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham, a Democrat whose father was judge-executive before him, did not respond to requests for comment.

‘No sense of urgency’

Last week, the Division of Water’s parent agency, the Energy and Environment Cabinet, reached its latest water-quality settlement with the Martin County Water District, levying a $3,000 fine and insisting that the level of THMs and HAAs be reduced. It was the cabinet’s third agreement with the district since 2005. The cabinet also has asked the nonprofit Kentucky Rural Water Association to send experts to Martin County to help the district locate and fix its many line leaks.

Likewise, the Kentucky Public Service Commission is currently investigating water delivery problems at the district, as it has twice before since 2002. That year, the PSC found the district to be “in a general state of disrepair” after the plant’s only operable pump stopped running early one morning, forcing a frantic search for a replacement.

The PSC noted “continued deficiencies” at the district a dozen years later, citing 37 recommendations from its most recent audit that the district had not carried out.

The PSC declined last week to say when it expects its present investigation to be finished.

“The commission will have at least one more request for information and will, after discovery is complete, schedule a hearing,” the PSC told the Herald-Leader about its work on the case, now six months old.

Kentucky Division of Water Director Pete Goodmann says he sympathizes with Martin County residents who can't drink their water, but solutions won't be easy.

State regulators can appear to move at a glacial pace. For example, on April 22, 2014, the PSC sent the water district a letter responding to a progress report the district filed 14 months earlier, describing what it was doing to implement changes from an order the PSC had issued five years before that.

Martin County residents say they have run out of patience.

“There’s no sense of urgency except for those of us who live here,” McCoy said. “We want something done now. Today. This is a community’s drinking water. Why is it taking so long to address what’s clearly a matter of public health?”

An expensive wish list

Water district officials say their system needs $13.5 million in repairs, a huge sum compared to the district’s annual budget of $2 million. The district refers to this wish list of improvements as “Project Rejuvenate.” It includes fixing a broken-down “clarifier,” one of three huge tanks where water is treated at the plant; adding an aeration process to help dissolve disinfectant chemicals after treatment; and replacing leaky water lines, especially in the county’s eastern half.

Nobody expects the district to get financial help from Martin County. In 2013, Callaham and other county leaders signed a $10 million, 25-year loan to erect a new government office building for themselves in Inez, replacing the county courthouse. Those handsome offices consumed most of the impoverished county’s remaining debt capacity and committed it to average repayments of $442,940 a year through 2038.

Forced to look elsewhere, the district is applying for loans and grants from state and federal agencies, said Bill Harvey, chairman of the district board. Raising its own money is out, Harvey added. The PSC won’t let the district increase rates on water customers until it provides better service, and it can’t provide better service until it has more money, “so it’s a Catch 22,” he said.

It’s also doubtful that many residents could afford to pay more for their water. Martin County is one of the country’s poorest places, with a poverty rate of 41 percent and two-thirds of adults unemployed for so long that they’re not even counted among the labor force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s frustrating,” Harvey said. “We know what to do and we know how to fix the problems and we know about how much it will cost. The problem is funding. There just isn’t any money.”

Power of the pen

Gary Ball, a 63-year-old former coal miner, edits the weekly newspaper in Inez, The Mountain Citizen, and sits on the Martin County school board. And he suffers from poor water service at his home in Wolf Creek. But he doesn’t suffer quietly.

A year ago, Ball wrote to the PSC and the Division of Water, urging regulators to assign Martin County residents to several neighboring water districts until their own county improves its water service.

“Last week, water service in the Warfield/Lovely area was off twice. We received no notice of a scheduled outage for repairs or nothing of that nature. We awakened to find our water either off or running at extremely low pressure,” Ball wrote. “The water district will cut corners and do anything to maintain a good public image while, in my opinion, routinely violating regulations by both the PSC and DOW.”

There is a history in Martin County. At some point, violating these orders from the state has to actually bring real penalties or else it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a basic human rights issue. We all have the right to clean drinking water.

Mary Varson Cromer, a staff attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg

Regulators said they lacked the authority to transfer customers between water districts. However, “the commission does find that Mr. Ball’s complaint raises service quality concerns that merit consideration and provide further support for an investigation by the commission into the operations of Martin District,” the PSC ruled in April. Soon, the PSC and the Division of Water were back in Inez asking questions again.

Meanwhile, Ball has hammered the water district in front-page stories and editorials that detail what’s going wrong and where. (Last week’s banner headline: “Water crisis continues in eastern part of county.”) He occasionally uses four-letter words to describe the quality of local water. Few readers object. He also encourages residents to submit videos and photos of polluted water pouring from their tap; he posts these on the Mountain Citizen’s Facebook page, which is where the Martin County Water Warriors drew the inspiration for their own Facebook page.

“People call me all the time because they think I can get their water fixed,” Ball said last month, relaxing in his newspaper office after delivering that week’s edition. “One old lady not long ago called me and said, ‘I had to go into the back of my commode and dig all this mud out to make it work again.’ And you hear that kind of thing a lot. You have to clean the muck out of your toilet or the whole thing gets gummed up.”

‘Just kind of the norm here’

On the school board, Ball has urged schools to give bottles of water to students so they won’t have to drink from the tap. In an interview last week, school Superintendent Larry James said the school district can’t afford that ongoing expense, although schools did hand out bottled water a few weeks ago during a temporary water outage caused by line leaks.

James added that he doesn’t drink the water at his own home.

“No, I can’t remember ever not buying bottled water,” the schools chief said. “That’s just kind of the norm here. It’s just the way it is.”

We sympathize with the people who lose service periodically. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.

Bill Harvey, chairman of the water district board

Martin County hasn’t had decent water for many years, Ball said. In 2002, the water district responded to criticism from all sides by hiring an outside company, American Water Services Inc., to run its system for $70,833 a month, plus expenses. The company quit two years later because it wasn’t getting paid. It alleged an outstanding debt of $537,296 when it packed up and left Inez. Water problems quickly resumed under local management.

“I don’t understand,” Ball said.

“In the coal mines, if you rack up a bunch of violations, they red-tag you, they shut you down until you can get your act together,” he said. “I asked a guy from the Division of Water once, ‘Why can’t you just shut this place down?’ And he said, ‘You can’t do that to a water system. There are public health issues — flushing toilets, bathing, washing dishes — even if you can’t drink it, you need to have running water. We can’t just shut a system down.’ So we’re basically at the mercy of whatever local people are running the system.”

‘I drink this water’

Water district officials say Ball and others exaggerate the magnitude of the problems, although they acknowledge occasional low water pressure and dirty water for brief periods after pressure is restored. Federal sampling standards for the disinfectant chemical byproducts THM and HAA are too strict, district officials say, but the district will try to comply with the latest settlement agreement by reducing average levels.

“To disinfect the water — and remember that we’ve got 270 miles of lines — it’s difficult to calculate the residual effects at the end of the lines. So yes, they (customers) may sometimes smell a little chlorine,” said Joe Hammond, the water district’s business manager.

“I will tell you, I drink this water. We cook with it at home,” added Hammond, who lives in Inez. As for the people complaining, “I think it’s instigated. I think a lot of it is political.” He declined to elaborate on this point.

Harvey, the district board chairman, blames the newspaper for stirring up the local population with alarming stories and photos.

“There are 30 or 40 people in the county that I keep getting complaints from,” Harvey said. “But 90 percent of the county, as far as I can tell, is satisfied.”

“We sympathize with the people who lose service periodically. We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” Harvey said. “Sometimes we do have to shut off water at night, when there is low usage, to build up water levels in the tanks. But we’re trying to juggle the system around. Everyone has water most of the time rather than some people not having water for an extended period of time while other people always have it. We think this is the fairest way to handle it.”

The water district soon could face another challenge.

Ball has been talking to Mary Varson Cromer, a staff attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg. Cromer mentioned to him the town of Hannibal, Mo., where residents in March filed a class-action lawsuit against their municipal water provider and the state regulatory agency that oversees it. The suit cites a chronic problem with excessive levels of disinfectant chemical byproducts in the drinking water. It seeks punitive and compensatory damages for ratepayers exposed to the water between 2011 and last winter.

Cromer says she is interviewing Martin County residents and gathering public documents about the water district’s violations. She has not decided on her next step. One factor, she said, will be whether the latest round of scrutiny by state regulators yields any significant improvements for the community.

“They have serious problems with their water, and it doesn’t appear that anyone is doing anything seriously to help them,” Cromer said. “There is a history in Martin County. At some point, violating these orders from the state has to actually bring real penalties or else it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a basic human rights issue. We all have the right to clean drinking water.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics