Historic law enables Kentucky's watch over a safe water supply

Hank Graddy is on the board of the Kentucky River Watershed Watch.
Hank Graddy is on the board of the Kentucky River Watershed Watch.

On the morning of Jan. 10, more than 300,000 people in Charleston, W.Va., woke up to discover that they were without safe water for drinking, bathing, cooking or commercial use.

It happened because a chemical spill from a company named Freedom Industries released 7,500 gallons (later revised to 10,000 gallons) of a chemical known as MCHM into the Elk River, upstream from the intake for West Virginia American Water.

This disaster was preventable. The law that should have prevented that disaster is the Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted Dec. 16, 1974. The 40th birthday of this law is worth celebrating.

On Aug. 6, 1996, a divided Congress, at the peak of the Newt Gingrich era, amended and strengthened the law to require "source water protection," which requires every community to:

■ Delineate a drinking water source protection area.

■ Inventory potential contamination sources.

■ Determine susceptibility of contamination.

■ Notify the public.

■ Implement measures to reduce or eliminate threats.

■ Develop contingency plans.

The Elk River disaster resulted from failure to properly implement source-water protection.

Are Kentuckians any better protected than the residents of Charleston? Maybe.

Kentucky was the first state in the nation to have our source-water protection program approved by the Environmental Protection Agency following the 1996 amendments.

This year, the Kentucky Division of Water announced a program modeled after the successful Washington state one.

However, neither the Safe Drinking Water Act nor the Clean Water Act will protect our waters without informed, concerned and active citizens — you and me.

Our Source Water Protection program has documented the importance of our smaller, intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams — more than 3.2 million Kentuckians get their drinking water from public systems that rely on these smaller streams which make up 54 percent of the river miles that are source waters for those systems. That is why Kentuckians should support EPA efforts to clarify the definition of "waters of the United States."

Kentucky also has had its share of water disasters.

Ten years ago, on Jan. 26, 2005, sometime after midnight, Mid-Valley Petroleum discovered a petroleum leak from its pipeline into the Kentucky River upstream from Carrollton — 260,000 gallons of oil leaked into the river.

The Mid-Valley spill followed the Oct. 11, 2000 Martin County disaster; an estimated 306 million gallons of coal slurry was discharged into tributaries of the Tug Fork. And there was the flaming whiskey spill from the Wild Turkey distillery into the Kentucky River on May 10, 2000.

At the urging of the watershed watch and Sierra Club, Gov. Ernie Fletcher responded to the Mid-Valley spill by creating the Kentucky State Pipeline Advisory Committee, making Kentucky the second state to have such a committee. Unfortunately, this task force met only four times, issued an "initial report" on April 30, 2007, and has not been heard from since. The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection has been urged to reactivate this committee.

The Division of Water reports that more than 95 percent of Kentuckians have access to public water systems that are producing consistently high quality water — a higher percentage than other southeastern states and second only to Illinois of the seven states that surround Kentucky.

We know the quality of our drinking water because the safe drinking-water law requires that we get this information.

So join us at the 40th birthday celebration of this crucial law at 6 p.m. Tuesday at West Sixth Brewing in Lexington. And join us next month, when the watershed watch will continue the celebration at West Sixth with our Jan. 10 SPLASH: "It takes clean Kentucky water to make great Kentucky beer."

Help protect our source waters and prevent an Elk River disaster in Kentucky.

Visit us at: Krww.org.