Millions of dollars found to repair water problems in Kentucky county

One of the valves on one of the treatment tanks at the Martin County Water District water treatment plant on Turkey Creek Road in Inez, Ky., Wednesday, January 25, 2001. There is a controversy developing in the community over the condition of the old water plant.
One of the valves on one of the treatment tanks at the Martin County Water District water treatment plant on Turkey Creek Road in Inez, Ky., Wednesday, January 25, 2001. There is a controversy developing in the community over the condition of the old water plant. LEXINGTON HERALD LEADER

Nearly $5 million in grants and donations will be used to make repairs and provide clean water in Martin County.

Martin County residents in Eastern Kentucky have complained about 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 Martin County Water District runs the system that has about 3,500 customers.

Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, whose 5th Congressional District is in Eastern Kentucky, jointly announced Saturday that $3.4 million had been found in two mine-related grants. The Appalachian Regional Commission also pledged an additional $1.2 million.

“It’s better than nothing, but I just hope there’s oversight on how it’s spent,” said Nina McCoy, chair of the Martin County Concerned Citizens group, which has pushed for access and accountability in the county’s water system.

The Martin County Water Board announced in January that it had been awarded the $1.2 million ARC grant. In documents filed with the Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates most utilities, the water district said it plans to use that money to repair and replace leaky service lines over the next two years.

The $3.4 million announced Saturday is a result of the Martin County Water Board’s application for $4.8 million from the Federal Abandoned Mine Lands program in January, said Bob Scott, director of Kentucky’s Division of Abandoned Mine Lands.

McCoy said the members of the Martin County Water Board who applied for the grant should be applauded for the influx of money.

“These people have been working on this grant, trying to get it for a while,” she said. “Our community has been asking for and deserves clean, safe, reliable drinking water.”

According to Scott, Bevin and Rogers both played integral parts in securing the funding for Martin County.

In recent weeks, national media and environmental activist Erin Brockovich turned their attention to the plight of Martin County citizens.

The work will include installing a secondary water intake in the Tug Fork River, upgrading the Crum Reservoir dam, installing a new water line from intake to the dam, and making improvements to the district’s water treatment plant, the elected officials said. A new monitoring system will allow water plant operators to make sure water tanks, pump stations and control valves are functioning.

“We have listened to the concerns of the local community, and the grant and corresponding project plan will provide assistance and address needed repairs and improvements within the local water district,” Bevin said in a written press release.

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

A more reliable water source should address emergency water shortages that have occurred, Rogers said.

“While Martin County’s aging water system is in dire need of a gamut of repairs, this funding is a big step in the right direction and helps ensure the people of Martin County will soon have a more reliable, sustainable source of clean drinking water that will include a modernized monitoring system to help prevent future emergencies,” Rogers said. “Everyone across the country should have access to clean drinking water.

“Over the last 30 years, we’ve expanded water systems in every county to make sure every day needs are met in Eastern Kentucky. As systems age and deteriorate, like the one in Martin County, we must remain vigilant to prevent prolonged water outages.”

The water district has previously refuted some of the customers’ claims, saying the water is clean and safe to drink.

The district has had trouble for years with a host of issues including water loss and financial mismanagement. 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 will hold a hearing Wednesday to review the district’s bid for the rate increase.

In its application for the increase, the district estimated it would take about $4.2 million replace all the damaged meters and pipes.

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

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.

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