The state’s utility regulator has started an investigation of the Martin County Water District, which has faced large water losses, service interruptions and concerns over water quality.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission announced the investigation Monday.
The PSC said the district’s water-loss rate has topped 60 percent in recent years, four times the 15 percent loss normally allowed under state standards.
Leaks in distribution lines are one common cause for water losses.
The PSC said in its order that it has identified chronic problems in the district dating to the late 1990s, including lack of routine maintenance and failure to follow acceptable management practices.
The agency investigated the district twice before and ordered changes, but the district didn’t complete many of them, according to the PSC.
For instance, after an inspection in 2002 found the water system “in a general state of disrepair,” a PSC investigation led to a settlement that outlined 43 steps the district should take to improve operations and maintenance.
However, the water district made only “slow and unsteady” progress on the corrections, the PSC said in the order issued Monday.
After a management and operations audit completed in 2008, the PSC again ordered corrections. A follow-up review in 2014 identified 37 uncompleted actions.
The district, which has about 3,500 meters, has since made improvements, but “significant work” remains to be done, the PSC said.
The district’s history of problems and a citizen complaint figured into the decision to investigate the system a third time.
The complaint was from Gary Ball, a county resident and editor of The Mountain Citizen newspaper in Inez.
Ball told the PSC that the water system routinely failed to notify customers of outages or to issue required boil-water advisories after pressure drops. He also said the system will shut off service or reduce pressure to customers in order to get enough water to refill storage tanks.
Ball said there are places where the water just stops flowing to customers at times, and that there are concerns about the quality of water that does reach customers.
“I just got sick and tired of it,” Ball said. “All the way around, it’s just bad.”
Ball asked the PSC to redraw water-district boundaries so Martin County residents could get service from other nearby providers.
The PSC said that is not within its authority, but it did say Ball’s complaints merit investigation.
Joe Hammond, a former general manager of the Martin County Water District who is now working as its business manager, said the system faces challenges because of a lack of money and employees but is committed to making improvements.
District officials have met with the PSC, the state Division of Water and the Kentucky Rural Water Association to further that effort, Hammond said.
Hammond said he thinks the district’s most pressing need is to replace old, leaky distribution lines.
A new treatment plant also would help, he said. The plant the district uses now was built in 1968.
The most likely outcome of the investigation announced Monday would be an order for the system to correct problems, said Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for the commission.
The commission also could direct the water district to seek a rate increase so it could afford to make repairs.
The PSC’s goal is a lasting fix for the Martin County district’s shortcomings, Melnykovych said.