The deplorable conditions of the Martin County water plant lead many across Kentucky to click their tongues and shake their heads at the lack of foresight from our community that allowed this travesty to fester.
While a few in our county had the power and connections to route money and expertise for maintenance of the infrastructure, the majority of our citizens have not been complicit in their own abuse.
There are many agencies and individuals — from Frankfort to Atlanta and on to Washington, D.C. — who have refused to hear our voices and protected our abusers for years as they ravaged this community from the inside and out.
In October of 2000, a coal slurry pond owned by a subsidiary of Massey Energy released 306 million gallons of toxic black sludge into our waterways. Some say that was a long time ago, it was a mistake, and that we need to move on. Not true. The pattern of abuse and the coverup that prevented Massey from paying for its crime are at the root of the current crisis.
The indifference and hostility of our state and federal agencies served to silence our citizens, prevented us from getting justice and led to the current water crisis.
On Dec. 29, 2000, Vicky L. Ray of the Kentucky Division of Water wrote a report citing many deficiencies in our water plant. “The concern is the overall operation and maintenance of the plant itself.” By that time our temporary “alternate water source line” had broken and the plant was pumping black sludge water from the Tug River.
On March 13, 2001, Art Smith, Environmental Protection Agency Region IV director from Atlanta, conducted a public meeting in response to residents’ concerns about the safety of the drinking water. A representative of the Kentucky Division of Water shouted at frustrated residents, saying there was nothing wrong with our water. He threw down a stack of papers and said, “Here’s what’s in your water.” Those results included only tests conducted before the slurry spill.
On March 28, 2001, Richard Nickel of the Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that “residents disputed that the (polluted) water was not taken into the treatment plant” and that “there was a lot of anger and resentment in the community.” He concluded that the residents’ complaints were not associated with the coal slurry. He said it “probably has something to do with the distribution system” and “the coal slurry was never taken into the plant because the intake was closed.”
In April 2001, then U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s wife, called for an end to the investigation of Massey’s role in the man-made disaster. When Jack Spadaro, an official of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, refused to sign off on the incomplete report, his office was ransacked and he was fired.
In April 2001, Congressman Hal Rogers gave my biology students and others across the state the opportunity to test the streams and to report the findings in a live feed with state environmental secretary James Bickford and with Rogers. This was funded by a federal grant called PRIDE to encourage citizens to care for their environment. I was told by Rogers’ spokesperson that they did not want to hear about sludge in our presentation: “This is about sewage and trash.” A gag order?
In April 2003, with the help of professor Stephanie McSpirit of Eastern Kentucky University, Martin County citizens petitioned the ATSDR to reevaluate their findings. Bob Safay began the meeting by saying he was “from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and we are not here to give you free health care, and if you want free health care I suggest you move to Canada.”
In the 1990s, Martin County was trying to attract a federal prison to “bring jobs.” A grant was written to use coal-severance money to upgrade the water plant and allow more water to be pumped from the Tug to assure a supply for the potential prison as well as the residents. A different judge-executive was elected in 1998 and the $3 million was spent for a “new raw water intake” instead.
In October 2017, state Public Service Commission lawyer Jeb Penney said that he was on the investigation “back in the day” and that this money was not spent correctly. Our community does not have a “new raw water intake,” nor do we have enough water to supply the federal prison or our own residents.
For 18 years we have been asking what happened to the $3 million. Does the PSC know?
In January 2008, EPA fined Massey $20 million for 4,500 violations from 2000 to 2006. If all violations were equal ??, Martin County’s share of that would be $4,444. Of course we got nothing.
The elected leaders and state and federal agencies who protected the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer from answering the cries of our citizens 18 years ago go well beyond the borders of Martin County elections.
Today I am reminded of the words of Bob Dylan, “Oh the times they are a-changing.” Martin County residents have organized and now are speaking with one mighty voice. The question now: Will our elected officials and public servants join us to get the clean, safe, reliable drinking water our citizens deserve?
Nina McCoy of Inez is a retired high school teacher and a member of Concerned Citizens of Martin County.