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Access to Clean Water

Water Is Unaffordable for Nearly Half of This Kentucky County’s Residents

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Photo: Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

A new report finds nearly half the residents of Martin County, Kentucky, cannot afford water service. Local activists with the Martin County Concerned Citizens are ringing alarm bells about water affordability as the beleaguered county faces another likely water rate increase in the coming months. 

Since the ReSource first reported on its water crisis two years ago, Martin County has become the prime example of rural communities struggling to maintain aging water systems.  

The county in eastern Kentucky’s coal country is one of the poorest in the state, but it boasts the eighth-highest average water bill out of the 141 districts regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission, according to the analysts behind a new report. Despite the high cost of service, Martin County’s ailing and outdated water system has left residents without water for days at a time, often delivers water that is undrinkable, and some residents claim it makes them sick. 

Soon, Martin County residents are likely to face a water rate increase that will mean more than half the county’s residents cannot afford water. 

As populations in rural America continue to drop, the rising cost of maintaining aging water systems falls on fewer residents. In central Appalachia, where average incomes are well below the national average, the burden imposed by those rising costs can be too much to bear. 

“There are many places in Kentucky where the citizens simply can’t afford to pay the rates necessary to get the repairs done,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center.

“Captive Customers” 

Martin County is under investigation for the third time since 2002 for financial mismanagement, service interruptions and excessive water loss. The district has violated federal water quality standards 90 times since 2001, according to the report, and data from the Public Service Commission shows that Martin County loses up to 70 percent of the water it treats before the water reaches residents’ taps. 

In a recent order, the PSC called the district’s condition “grim and desperate.” PSC Chairman Michael Schmitt added, “residents of Martin County are, unfortunately, the captive customers of what most certainly has been, over the last two decades, the most poorly operated water district in the state of Kentucky.” 

A still image from a video of foul water in a Martin County home. Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Citizen

Once a coal-producing mecca, Martin County has seen employment fall by 32 percent since July 2010. The water affordability analysis showed that 25 percent of Martin County residents live on $15,000 per year or less, with about 18 percent surviving on just $10,000 or less. 

“When you’re making less than $10,000 a year, pretty much everything is unaffordable,” said Cromer, who is representing Martin County residents in proceedings with the PSC. 

National and international bodies have guidelines to help water districts price water at an affordable level. The United Nations says water is unaffordable when it costs more than 3 percent of household income; the Environmental Protection Agency places that figure at 2.5 percent. 

According to the report, which was produced by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the community group Martin County Concerned Citizens, 46 percent of all Martin County residents are paying a share of household income that exceeds the EPA guidelines. Martin County’s poorest residents, those earning less than $10,000 per year, pay as much as 6.5 percent of their income toward water bills. 

The report found that Breathitt County, Kentucky, has the state’s highest water burden, at 2.7 percent, and Martin County has the second-highest at 2.4 percent. Customers in Martin County are spending 75 percent more of their income on their water bills than are customers in Oldham County, which has the state’s lowest water burden. 

The potential upcoming increase could be the second within a year, after a series of rate hearings increased the average bill by 41 percent since January 2018 to an average of $54.37 per household in November of the same year.

The November increase also mandated that Martin County hire an outside management company to run the district’s affairs, the key move that will likely render another rate hike necessary.

Missouri-based Alliance Water Resources was the only company to submit a bid and is currently negotiating the terms of the contract with the Martin County water board. 

“We feel pretty confident, from our conversations with Alliance Water Resources, and just looking at what it would take for a for-profit company to run the district, that it’s going to require another rate increase,” Cromer said.

At a recent meeting of concerned citizens at Martin County High School, residents expressed anger that their limited dollars would be used to pay a for-profit, out-of-state company. 

“Don’t we have nobody here who could manage us?” asked one attendee. 

PSC spokesperson Andrew Melnykovych said in a recent interview that an additional rate increase is not necessarily guaranteed as a result of hiring outside management. “It would depend on what the cost of the new management is relative to what they are paying now for their internal management services. And are there operational efficiencies that are going to be achieved through outside management that reduce cost somewhere else?”

Martin Countians are already struggling to pay. In a system with 3,500 customers, 300 disconnect notices were issued in July alone, according to the report, and the district has gone so far as to arrest a resident for stealing water. 

With a 25 percent increase in water rates, the water burden on Martin County’s poorest residents could rise to 8.2 percent. 

“I barely make it from month to month now,” said a Martin County resident who went by Kim C., sharing her story in the report. “So if our water bills go up, I like many would have to have it disconnected because I could not afford it.”

Another resident, Ruth Crum, said, “Our bills are already around $81 or higher a month. We are on Social Security, we can’t afford higher water bills…If they raise our water bill, we will disconnect our city water.”

The PSC maintains that according to statutes, it cannot consider customers’ ability to pay when considering potential rate increases. 

Not Alone

Martin County is the most notorious of Kentucky’s rural water systems, but it is by no means alone in its difficulties. The PSC in March announced a new investigation into 12 water utilities struggling with water loss rates similar to Martin County’s. The most recent report for Kentucky from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that Kentucky’s drinking water infrastructure needs $8.2 billion in investment, an increase of 33 percent from 2013 to 2017. Ohio and West Virginia require $13.4 billion and $1.39 billion, respectively. 

“I am proud of Kentucky for how much effort has been put into the drinking water system,” said Colette Easter, Infrastructure Report Card Technical Chair with ASCE. “But we are dealing with systems that are old.” Easter said the reduced demand for water due to a declining population compounds the problem. 

Martin County attorney Cromer said her goal was for rural water districts like Martin County to think bigger. “People need to be rethinking how we’re designing water systems and how we’re looking at rates and how we’re funding infrastructure repairs,” she said. “Maybe we need to be looking at smaller, more resilient systems that are less dependent on running lines up and over mountains and are more community-based.”

Martin County residents plan to call their legislators, hold protests and continue speaking out to oppose further rate increases. 

The PSC has scheduled a hearing on October 22 on Martin County’s water loss and the efficacy of current rate structures.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.

Access to Clean Water

Ohio Valley Residents Among Millions In America Lacking Access To Clean Water, Sanitation

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Photo: Courtesy Red Bird Mission

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Communities across the Ohio Valley are among an estimated 2 million Americans that do not have consistent access to clean drinking water and basic indoor plumbing, according to a report published in November by two nonprofits, DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report titled, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” synthesized data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, including its American Community Survey, to identify six areas of the country where access to clean water is lagging. That includes some communities in Appalachia, which the report lists among six “hot spots” for inadequate water access.

“From all the data sources we looked at, we know at least 2 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to running water or a working flush toilet,” said George McGraw, founder of DigDeep. “But we also know because of some errors with the census that the number is probably much higher than that.”

The analysis finds people of color, low-income individuals living in rural areas, tribal communities, and immigrants are more likely to go without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than any other group to have trouble accessing clean water.

The report states there are multiple reasons why some communities find themselves lacking access to clean water. One is a steep decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. Historical discrimination has also played a role.

In the 1980s, the federal government started placing more emphasis on loans over grants for water infrastructure. As a result, federal funding for water and wastewater systems has dropped from 63 percent in 1977 to less than 9 percent today.

Nationwide, the report finds the number of Americans without access to complete plumbing has declined. Between 2000 and 2014, those without water access dropped from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. However, the rate of decline has fallen in recent decades. For example, between 1950 and 1970 the percentage of the population lacking complete plumbing dropped from 27 percent to 5.9 percent.

“This suggests that the remaining communities lacking access face particularly entrenched challenges,” the report states.

Further analysis of state-level data by researchers at Michigan State University showed that while states made improvements, others including, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, saw the number of people without access to clean water grow.

“We’re worried in those places fewer people might have access to a working tap or toilet tomorrow than they do today,” McGraw said. “That’s a very alarming trend in a country that is as prosperous and has been as successful as we in extending services to all.”

West Virginia

In McDowell County, West Virginia, for example, the authors highlight three communities where crumbling infrastructure and population loss are creating a perfect storm.

In the town of Keystone, for example, the water system was constructed decades ago by coal companies that no longer exist. Today, the community, which stopped funding its police department in 2018, does not have the tax base to repair the leaking pipes.

In the nearby community of Mile Branch, many residents are not connected to any type of water system. Instead, some collect water from streams or other natural sources.

But the springs and wells many people used to gather drinking water may not be safe either.

When households are not connected to sewer systems or septic systems, waste is sometimes piped straight into nearby streams. The practice, also known as straight piping, can contaminate water used for drinking and cause health problems including staph infections and gastrointestinal issues. Water sampling from 2012-2014 in southeastern Kentucky found as many as 64 percent of the sites exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for E. coli bacteria.

Despite the region’s challenges, the report’s authors also highlight solutions across Appalachia that boost access to clean water.

For example, in McDowell County, the authors profiled the Five Loaves & Two Fishes food bank, which has become the de facto source of bottled water across the county. As a trusted organization within the community, the food bank is able to not only deliver drinking water, but check in with elderly and other vulnerable residents.

In southeastern Kentucky, the faith-based organization Red Bird Mission has installed a water filling station. The authors note that some residents fill up at night to avoid being seen, “an indication that life without water access still carries a stigma.”

Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance, said the prolonged failure to provide water and sanitation access in Appalachia is, in part, a question of the country’s priorities. She said while for most communities local taxes can fund maintenance and service, in impoverished, rural communities that may not be the case.

“We need to honor communities that live in rural America,” Fox said. “And when maybe the math might not always pencil out, we need to figure out how we utilize public investment to build that water safety net for those communities as well.”

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W.Va. Democratic Lawmakers Announce Plans To Tackle PFAS Chemicals

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West Virginia Del. Evan Hansen. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals. 

Del. Evan Hansen, who represents most of Monongalia County, and a group of colleagues, said the “Clean Drinking Water Act” would address the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also called PFAS chemicals. The class of chemicals includes C8, or PFOA, the chemical produced and dumped in the Parkersburg area for decades by chemical giant DuPont. 

The effect of the chemical and related events were recently brought to the silver screen in the blockbuster film, “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hatheway. 

Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP would be required to monitor these facilities and regulate their discharges of these chemicals into waterways. Currently, PFAS chemicals are unregulated nationwide. 

The second component of the bill would set legally-enforceable drinking water limits, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for some PFAS chemicals. 

The legislation comes at a time when both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators are increasingly testing for, finding and seeking regulations for these so-called “forever chemicals.”

In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. The chemicals are widely used including in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon.

Ohio announced in September it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In Berkeley County, federal researchers are currently studying residents’ exposure to C8 after it was found at a water treatment plant in Martinsburg. The contamination was likely due to groundwater contamination from the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, which used PFAS-laden firefighting foam.

Research conducted in the Mid Ohio Valley after DuPont’s settlement over C8 contamination linked chemical exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease, as well as testicular and kidney cancer.

“I think we owe it to the citizens of West Virginia, especially considering we were ground zero for the impacts of many of these chemicals, we owe it to the people of West Virginia to take matters into our own hands,” Hansen said.

The EPA is currently weighing how to set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA. A handful of states have set their own limits, much lower than the EPA’s current health advisory of 60 parts-per-trillion. 

Hansen said if the bill is passed, West Virginia would examine both EPA’s decisions and state actions. He also noted he hopes to put safeguards in the legislation so that if contamination is found, rate payers and cash-strapped municipalities won’t be on the hook for paying for cleanup. 

“What we are going to get out of this is the chance of transparency,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which supports the bill. “Companies will have to tell us what is in our water.”

Rosser and others said clean water is key to boosting the state’s economy. 

“The people of our state know polluting industries drive away clean industries,” said Del. John Doyle, a Democrat from Jefferson County. 

When asked about the bill’s chances of making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature, Hansen said he recognized it could be a tough sell, but said he’s open to hearing any ideas from his colleagues across the aisle or other interested groups. 

“I don’t think clean drinking water is a partisan issue,” he said. 

During the 2020 session, Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, said he also intends to reintroduce a proposed amendment to the state’s Bill of Rights that would enshrine clean air, water and the preservation of the natural environment as constitutional rights for current and future generations. 

The measure was introduced last session and had more than 30 co-sponsors. Two other states — Pennsylvania and Montana — have adopted a similar constitutional amendment. If passed, the environmental rights amendment would serve as a guiding principle for state leaders and regulatory agencies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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W.Va. Food Bank Trying Out Hydro-Panels For Clean Water Needs

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The Five Loaves and Two Fishes Foodbank has 24 hydro-panels for water-gathering in Kimball, West Virginia. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In McDowell County, West Virginia, access to clean water can be a challenge. Aging infrastructure, a shrinking tax base and lack of oversight affect the region’s water quality. That is why one community food bank is trying something different, to provide cleaner water to some who are in need.

Earlier this month, the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank and outreach center in Kimball debuted its new set of hydro-panels to the McDowell County community. 

They are like solar panels, but instead of using sunlight to create electricity, these hydro-panels pull moisture from the air and filter it with sunlight, to produce clean water.

According to information from developer Zero Amounts, each panel can hold up to eight gallons at a time in a mineralized reservoir. How fast the panels gather and filter water depends on how much sunlight is available, and the humidity. 

Linda McKinney pours a sample of water from her food bank’s hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Altogether, food bank director Linda McKinney said her 24 panels should hold 192 gallons at full capacity. That might seem like a lot, but Five Loaves and Two Fishes provides food and other essentials to more than 800 McDowell County families each month. Bottled water is one of their most requested items. 

“There’s no way with that amount of panels that we could, you know, supplement everybody in the county with enough water,” McKinney said. 

“It is a small start, but it’s better than no water. That’s what I say about food. You know, a lot of times we don’t get the healthiest food, and I always tell people [that] in my world, some food is better than no food. You know, it keeps your stomach from growling.”

Linda McKinney’s husband shows a picture of a shed, from which they hope to pump water from their food bank’s new hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The food bank got the hydro-panels with help from a California-based nonprofit called Dig Deep, which McKinney said visited McDowell County over the summer for a water quality study it released earlier this month.

“Dig deep was here for about a week,” she recalled. “And then they went back, and I kept in contact with this lady named Nora Nelson … and then one day she said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity, I think that would benefit you guys.’”

Dig Deep connected McKinney with Zero Amounts and the one2one USA Foundation, which paid for the panels. 

McKinney said she has not had to spend anything on the project herself. She added that she expects it to be fully operational by spring.

She and her husband were installing a shed a few feet away from the panels on Friday, where she will be able to pump water into one-and-five-gallon jugs for distribution.

Contractors still need to install pipes to connect the panels and the pump.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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