These Kentuckians had no water for weeks. Now officials want to raise rates by half.

‘They won’t help us.’ Frustration boils in Kentucky’s most troubled water district.

Martin County resident BarbiAnn Maynard blames poor water quality for the cancer that killed her mother. The water district claims the water is safe.
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Martin County resident BarbiAnn Maynard blames poor water quality for the cancer that killed her mother. The water district claims the water is safe.

Nearly everyone in Martin County has a number or knows someone who does.

Nine, 14, 21. The number of days people in this rural Appalachian county near the West Virginia line have gone without running water in recent weeks would astonish some, but the problems run deeper than empty faucets.

Resident BarbiAnn Maynard blames tainted water for the cancer that killed her mother 10 years ago. For her, the recent water shut-offs are just the tip of the iceberg, one example of why so many residents are speaking up online and in meetings with county officials.

So when the Martin County Water District applied for an expedited rate increase of 49.5 percent on Jan. 16, she was outraged.

“The whole county has been mismanaged for years,” she said. “I look at this as a personal assault on everyone they’re hurting.”

The Kentucky Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates most utilities, will hold a hearing in Frankfort on Friday to consider arguments for and against the water district’s rate increase request. In the days following the hearing, the commission will determine how much the district can increase rates, if at all.

The request comes as frustrations with the district run high. Thousands in Martin County went without running water this month for days on end — some for three weeks or more — when pipes froze and low water pressure forced the district to cut off service to many homes in hopes of filling reservoir tanks.

Most have water now, but some still report shut-offs to their homes on the Facebook group Martin County Water Warriors, where locals share information about water access and quality.

Citizens claim they report leaks to the water district, only to see them go unfixed for long periods of time. They also post videos and photos showing discolored water of neon blue and mud brown. They report rashes, dry skin and even cancer from drinking and bathing in the water.

District officials, however, have insisted the water is safe to drink, and there is no evidence to support claims the water has caused cancer or other long-term ailments.

There have been countywide problems 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.

District business manager Joe Hammond did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The district has for years struggled with crumbling infrastructure and a long list of accounts payable, which topped $831,000 as of November.

Documents show the county loses more than half of the water it treats through leaky pipes and tanks. In 2016, the water-loss rate reached 64 percent.

To replace its leaking pipes and start paying its debts, the water district has proposed increasing the rate it charges its 3,500 customers by half, which would generate just over $900,000 annually.

The district estimates its water system needs more than $13 million in repairs.

In interviews Wednesday, some residents said they oppose a rate increase because the district cannot be trusted to spend the money properly.

“Raising the bills is not going to help,” said Gina Patrick, a Martin County resident who now uses well water in her home. “Where are the laws to protect the consumers?”

Instead of charging customers more, some call for changing the county’s leaders at the voting booth. Others have suggested that state regulators should declare the district abandoned and put an outside agency or utility in charge of day-to-day operations.

More than anything, residents said they want accountability for how the water district has spent its money and accrued such a large debt.

“There has to be work done to rebuild public trust,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

Cromer has been working with a local activist group, Martin County Concerned Citizens, helping them request information about the water district and bringing residents to speak at Public Service Commission hearings.

If the commission approves a rate increase, it should also require measures to monitor and record how the district spends the new revenue, Cromer said.

“We’re sort of exploring what that would look like,” she said.

Nina McCoy, chairman of Martin County Concerned Citizens, said public trust in the county, and in federal and state agencies, has deteriorated over the years as problems with the water system have continued to worsen.

The most glaring example of misplaced county funds, she said, is the new county courthouse in Inez.

In 2013, county officials signed a $10 million, 25-year loan to pay for the new building, rather than investing in the water district.

“We could have had the finest water plant in Kentucky, but it has been squandered and wasted,” said Mickey McCoy, Nina’s husband.

Martin County's elected leaders spent $10 million to build themselves a new government office building in Inez, using up nearly all of the county's debt capacity. Photo by John Cheves

The district has received a $1.2 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission in September to rebuild infrastructure in some areas of the county. The improvements from this grant are expected to continue through 2020.

It has also applied for a $4.8 million grant from the Federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to pay for repairs to reduce water loss.

PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said the rate increase decision will play into a separate, ongoing PSC investigation into the Martin County Water District that started in 2016. This is the third PSC investigation of water delivery issues in Martin County since 2002, when the commission found the district to be “in a general state of disrepair” after the plant’s only operable pump stopped running.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” Melnykovych said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to fix it and it’s going to take a lot of time.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright