For decades, the water in Martin County and other pockets of coal country has been anywhere from brown and dirty to bleachy and salty. The water crisis in the area of Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state reached a boiling point in 2018 when service to many residents abruptly stopped, water board members quit, and the attorney general began investigating alleged misconduct, The Washington Post reports.
The Kentucky House of Representatives adopted a bill in March pleading for Republican Governor Matt Bevin to declare the Martin County situation a state of emergency and fund efforts to fix the broken water system.
Bevin announced on Saturday during a community forum that he was still undecided about the state of emergency request but promised to fund clean water efforts with state and federal dollars.
“We’ve done more in the last three months than was done in the previous three years,” he said.
Jimmy Don Kerr, the new chairman of the water board, has been one of the lead figures trying to stop the downward trajectory.
But, as Democrat, State Rep., and state of emergency advocate, Chris Harris warned, Martin County’s situation could spread across the state if not fixed soon.
“As the infrastructure deteriorates around the country, we are going to see more and more Martin Counties,” he said.
The struggles that Americans in the Appalachian region and beyond face are seemingly insurmountable. In its quadrennial report, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the U.S. drinking-water structure a ‘D’. The vast system of over one million miles of pipes consists of many that are 100 years old, 25 years past their life expectancy.
14 percent of treated water across the country is lost through leaks. But in Martin County, this number has skyrocketed to over 70 percent. This figure is over double the World Bank’s estimate of 35 percent for how much water is lost in developing countries. Estimates by the American Water Works Association stated that it will take $1 trillion to fuel demand over the next quarter of a century, and in Martin County alone, repairs cost over $10 million.
The water in Martin County is not just dirty—it is highly toxic too. “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,'" The Washington Post reported. And, according to the Kentucky Public Service Commission, the water board has consistently failed to do anything about it.
One local resident drives 30 minutes from her home every 10 days to fill plastic jugs with water that tests positive for coliform bacteria and E. coli, but she said she prefers boiling the water over drinking from the noxious pipes at her home.
The county once fueled by the coal industry is struggling to provide even the most basic of necessities to its residents.
“For all of the money that came out of those hills, they should have the best water system, the best schools and colleges,” said University of Kentucky professor of engineering Gail Brion. “I don’t see that they have gotten their fair share.”