Dirty Drinking Water Besets Coal County in Kentucky

Martin County Tap Water Samples 2016-2018   Photo: Martin County Water Warriors FB via The New Republic

The Governor of Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin, is considering whether to declare a state of emergency that would unlock resources to repair the dilapidated water system in Martin County, Kentucky deep in the heart of coal country.  In the meantime, the residents there must buy bottled water or hope for donated water in order to keep from drinking the tap water while they wait for action.  The Washington Post published an exposé on how years of deterioration in the pipes, mismanagement by the local public service commission, and an inability to raise rates to pay for repairs have created a $10 million price tag to fix the broken system.

Residents in the county have been dealing with the water issue for decades — but things reached a crisis point last year when water service to many county residents was turned off, the county water board fell apart, and the state Attorney General opened a criminal investigation into mismanagement there, according to The Post.  While the state legislature passed a resolution encouraging the Governor to declare an emergency, but the Governor is still on the fence, promising more funding to turn things around.  The county is deeply in debt and forty percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and both the coal mines and the coal severance funds are now gone.  It is hard to see how the county can rebuild without significant outside help.  And complicating things there is that the county is so small with complicated topography that the costs for repairs are difficult and extremely high per capita.

Martin County, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, is hardly an exception — they gave the nation’s drinking water system a D grade in a recent report.  Many water systems across the country are dependent upon water systems that are 25 years beyond their life expectancy and beset by leaks.  The American Water Works Association estimates, according to The Post, that the country will need to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years to repair all the water systems that will fail completely during that time.  

Why This Matters:  The bill is about to come due for our country’s aging water infrastructure system. Flint, Michigan and Martin County, Kentucky’s water problems are occurring with increasing frequency across the U.S. — in rural areas and in cities.  The country needs a major investment to rebuild these systems. The Marshall Plan analogy is fitting.  The price tag is indeed high, but, providing clean drinking water to all Americans is something we must find a way to fund.  Many ask how will we pay for a Green New Deal, of which replacing this aging infrastructure is a key component.  We wonder how anyone can think we can continue to delay infrastructure spending indefinitely.

To Go Deeper:  Worth your time is this longer story The New Republic published last year on the rural drinking water crisis in the U.S.

Drinking water contaminated with chemicals from the water treatment process. Graphic: Environmental Working Group

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