Kentucky

New documentary explores plight of Martin County residents who want clean water

Trailer: Martin County water crisis documentary goes in-depth on issue

An upcoming project produced by Kate Levy, a NYC and Detroit-based filmmaker, shows the cause and effects of the Martin County water crisis. The full documentary will be screened in Lexington on May 29 at the 21c Museum Hotel.
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An upcoming project produced by Kate Levy, a NYC and Detroit-based filmmaker, shows the cause and effects of the Martin County water crisis. The full documentary will be screened in Lexington on May 29 at the 21c Museum Hotel.

A documentary featuring the plight of people in Martin County, where long water outages and reports of poor quality have brought the Kentucky county into the national spotlight, will be screened in Lexington later this month.

The short film shows how underground coal mining operations have ruined the water wells of many residents, and how the infrastructure built to replace those wells has proven an inadequate replacement.

The screening — May 29 at 7 p.m., at the 21c Museum Hotel on Main Street — is free and open to the public.

The film is presented by the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Whitesburg law firm that has represented a citizens activist group in Martin County during its deliberations with local officials and state regulators. The law center will accept donations as part of the screening.

Following the screening, there will be a Q&A and panel discussion featuring Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center attorney and deputy director Mary Cromer, representatives of the local activist group Martin County Concerned Citizens, and others.

The documentary reveals the lack of trust and frustration many residents have with their drinking water system.

“Central Appalachia has powered this country through two world wars, through the industrial revolution — we ain’t asking for nothing we don’t deserve,” Mickey McCoy, a Martin County resident and activist, said in the film. “We deserve clean, fresh, drinkable water.”

Nina McCoy, chair of the Martin County Concerned Citizens and Mickey McCoy’s wife, said she hopes the film will encourage people to pursue community-based law, and that other areas suffering from similar problems can see the impact of law firms like the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

“The only successes that we’ve gotten are because of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center,” McCoy said. “Our community has been trying to say this has been a problem for years, and until Mary Cromer came in to actually explain to us what our rights were and what we could do, we didn’t have any traction.”

Nina McCoy said Cromer has worked with the Martin County Concerned Citizens for about two years.

The documentary was filmed by Kate Levy, a New York City and Detroit-based organizer whose work has been featured on CNN, Al Jazeera and Peace Report. In 2015, she covered the water crisis in Flint, Mich., with investigative journalist Curt Guyette and the ACLU of Michigan.

In the film, residents run through the history of coal’s impact on the environment, including a massive slurry spill in 2000 that let millions of gallons of coal sludge flow into tributaries of the Tug Fork river (a state task force found in 2005 that slurry samples from the spill were non-toxic, and that chronic health effects were not anticipated).

Many residents have, over the past year, reported bouts of miscolored water flowing from their taps, the result of aging and cracked service lines that allow groundwater and sediment to enter the pipes.

The cracked lines have also led to a high rate of water loss at the Martin County Water District, which allows treated water to flow out of pipes before it ever reaches customers.

“You’re paying for water that’s just going into the ground,” Cromer said during the film.

The film also features Gary Michael Hunt, a resident who was grabbed by the throat and thrown out of a county meeting during a massive water outage in January 2018, where many residents went days without running water.

“He didn’t threaten anyone,” Donald York, a Martin County resident, said during the film. “Now, he did use some foul language, but you know, people get angry when you take their water away from them for weeks or days at a time.”

The future of Martin County water remains unclear.

Residents have shouldered significant rate increases over the past year and a half, and officials and citizen leaders have warned that rates may continue to rise to an unaffordable level.

Like many Eastern Kentucky counties, Martin County’s unemployment rate has remained significantly higher than the statewide average, at 7.3 percent in March compared to the state average at 4.4 percent.

“Nobody else is handing us money,” York said during the film. “So if we want to have clean, potable water, guess whose shoulders it falls on? Ours. Plan and simple.”

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 @HLWright, 859-270-9760
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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