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Stirring the Waters
The lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia is stirring a public debate over the crisis and prompting calls to fix a long-failing infrastructure.
After country music singer Tyler Childers announced last week that he’d bring 500 cases of water to Martin County, his fans jumped at the chance to donate more.
Since his announcement, fans and supporting businesses placed orders for hundreds more cases that will be delivered over the next few months. So many people have donated that the Martin County Water Board chairman said there’s no telling how much will come.
In addition to Childers’ 500 cases handed out at the Inez Community Center Saturday, there are at least another 30 pallets of water on the way, said Ian Thornton, Childers’ manager. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 bottles of water.
“We posted we were gonna be down here with water, and next thing you knew, people from all over were coming up with water, so it’s pretty awesome,” Childers said.
Childers, who is from Eastern Kentucky, said he hopes his stardom will bring more attention to poor water quality and reliability in the region, particularly in Martin County, where residents have described going days without running water, and where many people don’t believe the water is safe to drink.
“There’s kids here that, it’s just normal to them, that you turn the faucet on and sometimes there’s gonna be some water, and most of the time, if there is some, then it’s this color, the color of my toboggan,” Childers said as he tugged on the green winter cap in his coat pocket. “And that’s messed up, especially in this day and age, 2018, that we’ve got people — kids and families — that are paying for water they can’t use.”
Childers was in elementary school during a coal slurry spill in Martin County in 2000, when 250 million gallons of coal sludge poured into streams feeding the Tug Fork River, the source of Martin County’s drinking water.
That event, Childers said, was the inspiration for a line in his song “I Swear to God,” that goes: “Big Sandy rock, sludge river roll.”
His 2018 tour, called the Sludge River Roadshow, also refers to the slurry spill. Childers used some money from that tour to buy the water donated this weekend.
The water district will hand out some of the undistributed cases at the county’s housing projects and stockpile the rest as part of its winter emergency preparedness plan.
Last January, frigid weather led to a massive water outage that affected thousands of Martin County residents. Some said they went more than a week without running water.
Jimmy Kerr, the water board chairman, said the district doesn’t necessarily expect another large outage, but it wants to prepare just in case. If water does go out for an extended period, the district will distribute water to people without it.
As a result, the timing of Childers’ donation couldn’t be better, Kerr said.
“He’s awesome,” Kerr said. “Very down to earth — you can tell he’s from Eastern Kentucky.”
Kerr also hopes Childers’ donation can help bring some positivity to the water district, which has made national news amid reports of poor water quality and long outages.
Since January, state regulators have ordered the district to find new management and required it to submit regular financial reports.
Kerr said the district has made big strides in its financial security and its operations over the past year, and he was grateful to Childers for partnering with the district in his donation.
Brenda Dalton, who lives in Inez, drove to the community center Saturday to pick up a few cases of water. She, like many Martin County residents, doesn’t drink the tap water.
“You can’t use it, period,” Dalton said. “You can wash your clothes in it. That’s about it, and wash your dishes.”
Dalton said she and her family buy about five cases a week for drinking, cooking and making coffee.
“You don’t realize how much water you use (till you have to buy bottled water),” Dalton said. “So this helps a whole lot.”
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.