Appalachian water crisis

Published 11:48 am Monday, December 24, 2018

Personal stories of families collecting rainwater, going without laundry or bathing, and keeping children out of school seem like the stuff of a hurricane aftermath or other weather emergency — not routine life in America.

Those are just a few of the findings of the Herald-Leader’s “Stirring the Waters” investigation into eight Eastern Kentucky water systems. The project — a partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America — showed many are living as if in an impoverished, undeveloped country.

The reporting team documented a long list of boil-water advisories, line breakdowns, pollution, discoloration, leaks and shutoffs. From 30 to 70 percent of water is lost from leaky pipes. All the while, customers’ bills go higher.

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“Those folks deserve water just as much as the rest of the state,” State Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, told Herald-Leader reporter Will Wright. “It doesn’t seem to be the priority of Frankfort to reach out to places like Martin County and the edge of Harlan and Letcher counties. Maybe we just haven’t made enough noise about it.

Through this series, people made some noise.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that Gov. Matt Bevin should express some outrage about the situation or, better yet, commit to finding solutions.

After all, the dire water situation in Eastern Kentucky is a major obstacle to the economic-development efforts he touts. How can Kentucky attract businesses there when we can’t guarantee dependable water service?

This is not an issue that can generate quick political scores. It’s complicated by the region’s declining population, shrinking revenue, private management of water systems, inadequate maintenance over years, the need for more federal support and insufficient state oversight.

There are a few ways to start addressing these issues:

– On the federal level, both Rep. Hal Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell told Herald-Leader reporter Will Wright that Congress has designated more money for rural water systems. But the most available source of money for Eastern Kentucky would be the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund. McConnell and Rogers should use their clout to allow that money to be spent on water infrastructure repair, not just expansion.

– On the state level, the legislature needs to give the Public Service Commission, which approves utility rates, more authority to appoint managers of poorly run operations, in the same way the education board does with poor-performing schools. It took years of problems before the PSC ordered the Martin County district last month to find new management for day-to-day operations. The PSC would also need more staffing to expand its expertise.

– Local elected officials should demand full accountability of finances and plans for repairs and help make tough decisions about rates and distribution areas. There should also be a way to deliver water to customers when there are service problems. Ray Jones, Pike County’s judge-executive-elect, said one of the first meetings of next year will be a detailed presentation from the Mountain Water District on their finances and operation. Other county officials should follow suit and let lawmakers know what they need.

Hatton said she and other state legislators have briefly discussed filing a bill similar to one passed in California, which would put into law that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

Debating that might help keep the issue on lawmakers’ minds and remind other legislators that this is problem for the state as a whole. As Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, said: “These are universal concerns and crises that we all have to gather around.”

Lexington Herald-Leader