Political action prompted by unreliable water access, quality

Published 12:08 pm Friday, January 26, 2018

People in Martin County can’t turn a tap and count on getting water, much less water you’d dare to drink. It’s outrageous, but not surprising.

Decades of mismanagement and neglect have produced a water-delivery system that is barely functioning. Vendors now demand cash payments because the utility has unpaid bills of $800,000-plus and rising.

The recent crisis has required daily water shut-offs to thousands of homes and businesses — hours on end when people can’t flush a toilet. Don’t blame the cold. The emergency was triggered by the district’s inability to pay to repair a pump that draws water from the Tug Fork.

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If a school district were teetering on collapse, the state could seize control. But no such authority exists for water districts. State agencies have halfheartedly intervened, going back at least to 2002. The Public Service Commission, now on its third investigation of the utility, and the Division of Water should do all they can to rush relief to Martin County, including granting citizens’ request for an expedited PSC hearing on urgent questions raised by the emergency.

Long-term, the solution might be consolidating with neighboring water districts. But ultimately the decisions and responsibility are local.

Martin County is small (barely 12,000 people) and impoverished (40 percent live in poverty), despite having produced 436 million tons of coal over the last 100 years. Public money, including the severance tax on all that coal, flowed into county coffers during the years that the water system was breaking down.

But voters repeatedly elected officials who found other uses for the coal-tax money. Not just the pipes are busted, so are public accountability and democracy.

Coal operator and businessman James H. Booth, a former chairman of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, is the undisputed dominant force in his home county. His businesses provide most of the private-sector jobs, and he has led economic development efforts. This probably goes without saying, but a reliable water supply is critical not just to economic development but to life itself. It’s puzzling that Booth and his surrogates in elected and appointed offices stood by as this slow-motion disaster unfolded.

Experts who are consulting with the water district at the urging of state officials put the cost of rebuilding at $13.5 million. The system leaks as much water as reaches taps. Customers complain of discoloration, foul smell and low and erratic pressure. For years the water contained elevated levels of chlorination byproducts suspected of causing cancer.

Fixing all that was not a priority. In the first decade of this century, local officials sank more than $9 million in coal severance tax revenue in a spec building and an office building in hopes of attracting jobs; both investments disappointed. In 2013, when the water problems were glaring, county officials committed $10 million to build a government building to replace a historic courthouse built of native sandstone by the Works Progress Administration. Meanwhile, coal tax revenue has slowed to a trickle or dried up, while the county will be paying for the government’s new digs until 2038.

Four of the five utility board members jumped ship recently, just in time for a new board to take the rap for a 49-percent rate increase. Customers, many of whom can’t afford to pay more, are justifiably skeptical. The PSC received the rate increase request Jan. 16.

If there’s a glimmer of silver lining, it’s that the emergency is uniting citizens, traditionally separated by politics and mountainous terrain, to demand action. A group called Concerned Citizens of Martin County is bird-dogging the water problems and has enlisted attorney Mary Cromer of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. The Martin County Water Warriors keep each other informed on Facebook.

If they can make themselves felt at the ballot box, more than the water might improve. The filing deadline for this year’s elections is Jan. 30.

Lexington Herald-Leader