A remarkable opportunity for Cumberland, Benham and Lynch

Published 6:00 pm Monday, May 13, 2024

In February, I wrote to you the citizens of the Tri-City area outlining the critical condition of your wastewater treatment infrastructure, and the urgency with which a solution must be found.

I am writing again today to urge you to attend a public meeting on May 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Benham Schoolhouse Inn with your local leaders as they discuss a solution that will stop your sewage from continuing to pollute your rivers and streams and will provide an economic boost to your communities.

Each city – Cumberland, Benham and Lynch – owns and operates its own sewage collection system and wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). The plants were constructed in 1964, 1965 and 1955 respectively and are in dire need of repair or replacement. Although some repairs have been made, holes, cracks, and joint failures in the sewer lines allow excessive storm and groundwater to enter the lines, over-burdening these already limited facilities.

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Today, in their current condition, these treatment plants cannot sustain the population it was intended to serve, let alone provide for any growth.

Throughout the years, community members in the three communities have discussed possible improvements but high costs, changes in leadership and a misplaced fear of lost autonomy have delayed progress.

As a result, each wastewater treatment facility has been in non-compliance with significant violations for the last 12 quarters. More than 100 enforcement actions have been taken against the plants in the past five years for releasing staggering amounts of untreated or inadequately treated waste into the creeks and waterways of southeastern Kentucky.

The ecological, environmental and health impacts these practices have on your communities are more than troubling. Swimming and water contact are no longer advised for nearly all of the Upper Cumberland River, including Martins Fork, Catron Creek, Clover Fork, Straight Creek, Poor Fork, and Looney Creek. Fishing is limited and consuming any fish from the waterways is discouraged.

These same waterways are used as drinking water sources for the Cumberland community.

In my letter in February, I outlined very viable, yet time-limited opportunities that are available right now to address these issues.

The Tri-City area – one of only 11 communities in the country – was chosen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA-RD) to participate in a wastewater improvement initiative, the first of its kind.

As part of the award, the community has received a comprehensive, no-cost assessment of its wastewater system as well as a roadmap for improvements, funding sources and technical assistance to implement a chosen strategy. Options for drinking water improvements, similarly a huge concern for the area, have been evaluated and provided in this report as well.

All of this is being handed to the Cumberland, Benham and Lynch leadership at little to no cost.

There are options on the table that would forgive years’ worth of monetary fines and legal actions pending against the facilities. In addition, there are options that would essentially overlook the lack of audited financial records the systems have failed to report for the past three years.

But action must be taken immediately. The EPA and USDA are making grant and loan programs available to help pay for the wastewater system improvements, and there are many other funding sources available as well.

I want to thank the EPA and USDA-RD for providing this remarkable opportunity. Thanks also go to the mayors and councilmembers of Cumberland, Benham, and Lynch; the Cumberland Valley Area Development District; the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP); the Kentucky Rural Water Association (KRWA); and the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA) – that have come to the table to develop solutions for each city’s wastewater issues.

We look forward to meeting with you and your local leaders on May 14 at the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, 100 Central Ave, Benham, KY 40807, to discuss the draft assessment and the recommendations outlined. I ask residents to please attend and encourage your decision-makers to take this opportunity to do something now to address this horrific situation.

As proud citizens and stewards of our beautiful and unique natural resources, you and your children deserve better. As customers, you cannot continue to finance these ageing individual wastewater systems that are essentially unable to adequately perform.

It will be the last and best chance to make meaningful change.

Rebecca Goodman,

Cabinet Secretary

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet