LOVELY, Ky. — When the well water here turned brown and started tasting salty, Heather Blevins’s parents hooked their property on Dead Man’s Curve into the municipal supply. It seemed like a blessing until new hazards emerged: Today, Blevins says, the tap water smells of bleach, occasionally takes on a urine-colored tinge, and leaves her 7- and 8-year-old children itching every time they take a bath.
“The way the water is now, I’d rather have well water,” said Blevins, 44, who keeps a constant eye on the county water district’s Facebook page to watch for pipe breaks and boil-water advisories. Blevins, who says her water rates rocketed recently from $19 to almost $40 a month, sets aside money from her $980 Social Security check for bottled drinking water and chemical-free baby wipes to keep her allergy-prone children clean.
“It shouldn’t be like that,” she said.
It’s been “like that” for decades here in Martin County, as it has in other pockmarked parts of coal country. The water crisis peaked last year when service to many residents was shut off, members of the water board quit, and the attorney general opened a criminal investigation into allegations of mismanagement. The Kentucky House recently passed a resolution asking Gov. Matt Bevin (R) to declare a state of emergency and free up resources to fix the dilapidated system.
On Saturday, Bevin held a community forum with residents in Inez, the county seat, where he said he had not decided about the state of emergency but pledged to channel state and federal dollars toward the problem.
“We’ve done more in the last three months than was done in the previous three years,” Bevin said.
The water board’s new chairman, Jimmy Don Kerr, has taken a lead role in trying to reverse the downward trend.
But State Rep. Chris Harris (D), who advocated for the state of emergency, warned that Martin County’s problems could soon be everyone’s.
“As the infrastructure deteriorates around the country, we are going to see more and more Martin Counties,” he said.
The challenges are monumental here in Appalachia and beyond: The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking-water system a D grade in its quadrennial report card. The network of more than 1 million miles of pipes includes many that are a century old and have a 75-year life expectancy. Across the country, 14 percent of treated water is lost through leaks, and here in Martin County, that figure has at times reached more than 70 percent. The American Water Works Association estimates that it will take $1 trillion to support demand over the next 25 years; in Martin County, repairs carry a price tag exceeding $10 million.
President Trump, like President Barack Obama before him, touted the economic importance of repairing the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Neither has succeeded. Among the 2020 presidential candidates, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stands out for her emphasis on improving infrastructure as a major policy proposal, calling for $1 trillion in federal and state funds to be spent in seven areas, including updating bridges and Internet connectivity, and ensuring clean water.
Drinking water, which is typically funded by local rates, is a particularly tough sell, with little to show for investment that is largely spent underground. Updating small systems such as Martin County’s presents additional problems, experts say, because they lack economies of scale and have limited technical and managerial resources.
Greg Scott, the water district’s new general manager, sounds optimistic as he speaks from an office at the treatment plant, where he stores stacks of bottled water — handouts for residents whose supply fails.
Only two of the three giant blue clarifier tanks at the plant are operable, and the district is deeply in debt.
“We can climb out of the hole,” he said.
It is a heady goal for this coal-fueled county where Lyndon B. Johnson launched his War on Poverty 55 years ago. Forty percent of the 12,000 residents still live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is well above the national average.
The closure of coal mines has taken away jobs and also the coal severance funds that companies pay to mining communities.
“For all of the money that came out of those hills, they should have the best water system, the best schools and colleges,” said Gail Brion, a professor of engineering at the University of Kentucky. “I don’t see that they have gotten their fair share.”
Hilly terrain, carved by rivers and punctuated by springs, exacerbates the technical challenges, as water has to be forced under high pressure to reach families up in the mountains. Leaks create a vacuum that sucks in the surrounding dirt and can create a hazardous concoction with disinfecting chemicals.
For years, customers’ utility bills warned that prolonged exposure to contaminants could lead to problems with the “liver, kidneys, or central nervous system” and “an increased risk of cancer.” And for years, according to the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities and has conducted investigations into Martin County, the water board failed to take the politically unpopular step of raising rates to make improvements.
“If you don’t keep up infrastructure, costs balloon out of control,” said Andrew Melnykovych, a PSC spokesman who described the recent rate increase as a necessary catch-up.
Mike Schmitt, chairman of the PSC, called Martin County “by far the worst water district, in my opinion, in the state of Kentucky.”
A few residents kept a close eye on the mounting crisis, posting news of pipe breaks and photos of filthy water online, as well as bird-dogging local officials. After Nina McCoy, of Martin County Concerned Citizens, started working with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, the attorney general opened his inquiry into the whereabouts of a “$3 million grant from the Coal Severance Fund,” among other things. Any potential criminal findings, Andy Beshear’s office said, will be presented to a Martin County grand jury.
Former judge executive Kelly Callaham, who used to appoint the board, denied that money had been misspent but acknowledged that there had been mismanagement. He said it stemmed from board members’ unwillingness to cut off people who did not pay their bills.
“When you live in a small town, these people, you’re going to see them at the store, at the post office,” Callaham said.
Kerr, who said he drinks the local water, promises transparency. But decades of mistrust have tainted attitudes toward any development — prime among them the construction of a high school that is almost complete but lacks on-site water.
The project has been beset by delays over the route the waterlines should take and a request for a much larger water tank than the school needed. Callaham and James Booth, a former coal baron and chairman of the Martin County Economic Development Authority, said that they requested the tank to provide for a new industrial park, as well. Critics, including McCoy, worry that the added demand will put more pressure on a system strained to the breaking point — and that the person likely to profit most is Booth, who owns gas stations, convenience stores and other commercial enterprises in the county.
For now, tanker trucks fill up in Inez and drive uphill to the construction site, where they disgorge the water into smaller tanks.
Larry James, the schools superintendent, declined an interview. Booth did not respond to calls or emails. Asked whether he saw potential conflicts of interest, Callaham said: “I guess it could kind of be. But would you rather not have nothing than [Booth] developing these good jobs?”
Kerr said he has decided to look forward.
“It doesn’t bother me. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t,” he said. “He is the one guy in town who can provide future economic development.”
Kerr has secured two federal grants totaling nearly $5 million and says more than $3 million could be on the way. The water district is now paying its bills and has repaid about $150,000 of its more than $1 million debt.
The health warnings are gone from utility bills, following changes in the chlorination process.
He has set priorities, starting with the hydraulics.
“We’re steering the ship, not just plugging the leaks,” Kerr said. “Literally.”
He is also trying to engage local activists and has asked McCoy to join the water board. Even if he finds money to pay for repairs, a rate-based system depends on customers using the water.
“I don’t know how we change people’s minds,” Kerr said. “That’s what keeps me up. How do we get people to trust the water again?”
“Dementia. Dementia. Dementia,” says BarbiAnn Maynard, pointing to her neighbors’ houses one by one from her front window. At 62, her father has neurological symptoms she can’t explain, and she wonders whether the “central nervous system” problems she used to read about on her water bills have anything to do with them.
Every 10 days, Maynard drives about 30 minutes from her home in Huntleyville to fill one-gallon plastic jugs from a hose that spews spring water toward a four-lane highway. Scientists from Virginia Tech have told her that the water tests positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria, but Maynard said she would rather boil it than drink her tap water.
Since a neighbor died in a house fire, she worries that firefighters might not be able to help others, such as Jess Taylor, who lives on a mountainside across the road where the water pressure is low, so she collects rainwater in buckets for her goats and to flush toilets.
Many people, such as Blevins, buy bottled water. Others hope for donations, which flow in on small rented trucks and vast 18-wheelers.
In early April, Lydia Coffey and Cathy Carter, both retired teachers, drove four hours in a U-Haul to deliver bottled water collected through the informational group Kentucky Teachers in the Know.
They unloaded cases onto a trailer, then paused to chat with local residents. Carter’s voice broke as she rested in the back of the now-empty U-Haul.
“It makes me emotional that people have to deal with this in the 21st century,” she said, “in the country that’s supposed to be so great.”