‘This has gone on too long.’ Erin Brockovich offers help in state’s ‘worst water district’

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich in 2015.
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich in 2015. AP

As national media outlets and environmental activist Erin Brockovich weigh in on Kentucky’s “worst water district,” some residents have responded with cautious optimism that change may finally come to this rural Appalachian county.

Publications including the Los Angeles Times, and the New Republic recently featured the Martin County Water District and the plight of its 3,500 customers as a localized example of what some say is a national water crisis.

The articles explored the complaints of the Eastern Kentucky residents, which include lack of access to running water this winter; discolored water that comes out the tap looking like beer or milk; rashes and sores caused by bathing in the water; and illnesses like cancer they attribute to chemical contaminants.

The water district has refuted some of these claims, saying the water is clean and safe to drink, but that has not stopped the national spotlight from honing in on the county described by the chairman of a state regulatory board as “the worst water district” in Kentucky.

Now, Brockovich, the subject of a popular 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts, said an associate of hers, water system consultant Bob Bowcock, will work with county officials to create a plan to fix the long-troubled water district.

“This has gone on too long, this needs to be fixed, and there’s no reason why in 2018 we can’t do that,” Brockovich said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

“The people are excited, but they’re not going to get their hopes up,” said Gina Patrick, who lives near the Tomahawk area of Martin County. “I believe it’s going to be tough for anybody to come in and try to straighten this situation out.”

The district has had trouble for years with a host of issues including water loss and financial mismanagement, but media attention surged recently when thousands of residents went without running water for days after an intake pump and service pipes froze during frigid weather last month.

For years the district has lost more than half of the water it treats through leaky pipes and tanks, and the district announced last month that it is more than $800,000 in debt that it cannot afford to pay back.

At a state regulatory board hearing in January, the water board chairman said the district would collapse within just 60 to 90 days if it did not get approval for a massive rate increase of nearly 50 percent.

The Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates most utilities, has not issued a final decision on the rate increase.

On Monday, the district’s business manager Joe Hammond abruptly retired, leaving the water board to search for an interim manager.

Patrick said the county’s political structure and a lack of transparency on the part of the water district will likely make it difficult to find solutions, but she said many residents welcome media coverage and hope Brockovich and her associates can push the county in the right direction.

Martin County resident Tangarie Mollette said after multiple failed attempts to contact Brockovich before the recent media coverage, she is hesitant to trust the California activist, but she echoed Patrick’s optimism on media coverage.

“They would love to see as much media as possible because maybe they’ll get the ball rolling,” Mollette said of her family and friends in Martin County. “I’m hoping it does, but of course you can’t expect miracles.”

In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Brockovich said the county’s water board, which includes four new members, has been receptive to the idea of outside expertise, and will meet with Bowcock, the water consultant, for four days later this month.

Brockovich has weighed in on water issues in Kentucky before.

In 2016, pictures of a Martin County creek turned bright yellow caught her attention. Brockovich said in a Facebook post she “would get to the bottom of this.”

A report from state officials about 10 days later revealed that paint from large leftover containers was likely the cause of the discoloration.

Brockovich said many Martin County residents reached out to her recently, and that she believes Martin County has the right ingredients for change: a water board receptive to new ideas and input; active community groups who want to see change; and coverage from local and national media.

Despite the bleak status of the Martin County Water District, some residents said many in the county remain optimistic.

“For the first time in many, many years, the people of Martin County have hope,” said resident BarbiAnn Maynard. “Now we have a chance for change, and if we don’t take it now we may never get this chance again.”

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