Kentucky water district known for poor service may become the state’s most expensive

The Martin County Water District water treatment plant on Turkey Creek Road in Inez, Tuesday, Oct. 2.
The Martin County Water District water treatment plant on Turkey Creek Road in Inez, Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Customers of a Kentucky water district notorious for reports of poor water quality and frequent outages are at risk of another major rate hike, potentially making “the worst water district ... in the state of Kentucky,” as one official put it, one of the most expensive.

On Monday, the authors of a new report, compiled by the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, gathered on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol and urged lawmakers to take immediate action to prevent another major rate increase for customers of the Martin County Water District.

The report offers a grim portrait of the affordability of water in Martin County — an eastern county that borders West Virginia and, as one of the poorest counties in Kentucky, was where President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. It also offers a list of recommendations to improve a water district marred by long outages and made infamous by videos that show brown and discolored water flowing from residents’ taps.

The Martin County Water District has been the subject of state scrutiny for years. In 2018, the district made headlines when it shut off water to thousands of residents for days at a time. In the months that followed, the district’s leadership said it was on the brink of financial collapse, and had racked up more than a million dollars in debt that it could not afford to pay back.

In response, state regulators with the Kentucky Public Service Commission approved rate hikes that have increased the average customer’s bill by 41.5 percent since January 2018, raising the minimum bill from $26.50 to $37.51. The average bill is $54.37, making it the 8th highest average bill in the state, according to the report.

The PSC also ordered the district to find an outside management company to take over day-to-day operations by the end of the year. The order requires the district to put another $3.16 surcharge on every bill to pay for the new management company, but officials and the authors of Monday’s report fear that won’t be enough to foot the bill.

Further rate hikes may be the only option, and many residents will not be able to afford it, the authors warn.

“In the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, this is not acceptable,” said Nina McCoy, chairwoman of the Martin County Concerned Citizens group, which has advocated on behalf of residents impacted by water quality and reliability problems. “We need to put our finest minds to figuring out how to get clean, safe and affordable drinking water to all of its citizens.”

Martin County is one of the poorest in the state. Nearly 20 percent of households have an annual income of less than $10,000, and 45 percent make less than $25,000.

“Without question the people of Martin County have been hit hard by their ongoing water crisis,” said Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills, who has sponsored several pieces of legislation related to drinking water in Martin County. “In addition to the well-documented problems facing the water district itself, customers are also being asked to pay steep bills they simply can’t afford.”

The report suggests that protections must be put in place for the county’s most vulnerable residents, and urges the PSC to consider affordability when approving rate increases.

The report also urges the state legislature to appropriate funds to rebuild the district’s crumbling infrastructure — a move that would veer from the traditional revenue structure of water districts, which rely on rates and grant funding.

In high-poverty areas with declining populations, the current funding model will prove to be unsustainable, said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center who co-wrote the report.

“At some point, you have to re-think the system,” she said.

The report focuses on “water burden,” or the percentage of household income that is used to pay a water bill. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, any water bill that accounts for more than 2.5 percent of a household’s income is considered unaffordable.

By that definition, 45.8 percent of households in Martin County have a bill that is unaffordable, the report found. For the 18 percent of households that make less than $10,000, water bills would account for at least 6.24 percent of their income.

The new management company ordered by the PSC would likely come with a rate increase of at least $10, Cromer said.

That would make Martin County Water District the most expensive in the state, according to the report.

“To me, it’s unacceptable,” Gary Michael Hunt, a resident of Martin County, said at his home near Inez last week.

Hunt lives with his wife, two children and his mother-in-law at the end of a narrow, winding road that turns to gravel. A former coal miner who was injured on the job, Hunt said he draws $1,700 a month from disability. His wife, a nurse, makes about $1,400 every two weeks.

Their water bill, he said, can get as high as $160 a month.

“It’s tough just trying to swing it,” he said.

Like many water district customers in Martin County, Hunt does not believe the water is safe to drink. Until recently, customers’ water bills came with a note saying the water did not meet certain standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fearing long-term health impacts, many customers, including Hunt, buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Many customers have complained that water sometimes comes out the tap brown and discolored, the result of cracked lines that can allow dirt and sediment to enter the pipes. The cracked lines also contribute to Martin County’s extraordinarily high 70 percent water loss rate — the amount of water that a district treats, but then loses to faulty meters, cracked lines and theft.

“I think it’s ridiculous to pay that much for the water loss being so high,” Hunt said. “It’s a lose-lose situation either way you go.”

During a public meeting earlier this month, Hunt and others said they wished federal grant dollars would be used to repair the district’s aging water lines.

Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers recently announced that $7.23 million of federal funding would flow into Martin County to improve the water district and build up the county’s industrial park.

Many residents, along with the authors of the report, argued the money was “misdirected toward projects that do not serve the majority of residents in Martin County,” including building new buildings at the mostly-vacant industrial park, according to the report.

“I don’t give a damn if they build 100 buildings up there. If they can’t supply water to them they might as well knock the doors down and make a barn for them wild horses up there,” Hunt said, referring to a small herd of wild horses that roam the park.

McCoy, the Concerned Citizens chair, said the PSC’s notion that a $3.16 surcharge could pay for a new management company was disingenuous, saying “offering that is offering a fairy tale.”

A private company will be forced to raise rates to fix the system, she said, forcing many families to choose between water and other essential services, such as food, car insurance or other necessities.

“If their water goes off, they’re not going to be able to wash their kids, wash their clothes, and that’s probably going to happen,” she said. “It’s probably happening now.”

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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