Washington, D.C. – Martin County, Kentucky, one of the poorest communities in the nation, is facing a water emergency comparable to Flint, Michigan. While the state Public Services Commission is considering whether to radically raise rates for a catastrophically failing system, Food & Water Watch today released a new case study looking at the roots of the failing system, which has been troubled for decades and declining since the Massey coal sludge spill in 2000. This January, some households were without water for as many as 21 days, a continuation of longstanding reliability and contamination problems.
The analysis tells the story of coal industry power, disinvestment, mismanagement and corruption, and provides a warning against Trump’s infrastructure plan, which would leave more rural communities like Martin County waiting for Wall Street investment in their water systems that would likely never come. The case study reveals:
- The proposed 49.5% rate hike by the Public Services Commission shows that the biggest commercial users would still pay less per gallon than what households now pay for failing water service.
- For years, residents have complained of water outages, low water pressure and discolored water that smells of chemicals or sewage.
- The system has persistently lost more than half the water it pumps due to leaks; from 2012 to 2015 it leaked more than 1.5 billion gallons of water.
- Elaine Chao (then labor secretary and now one of Trump’s biggest infrastructure boosters as transportation secretary—and wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell) oversaw the investigation into the coal slurry spill in 2000 that precipitated many of the community’s water problems today. Massey Energy ended up paying only $5,600 in federal fines for the massive spill—amounting to less than 2 cents for every 1,000 gallons spilled.
- Distant, absentee owners like Norfolk Southern and Harvard University have controlled a huge amount of the land and mineral assets in Martin County, and many of them face no (or very low) taxes. This lack of fair taxation has contributed to the fiscal problems that have hurt the water system.
“One of the most powerful men in Congress is ignoring his constituents in Kentucky, while his wife is cheerleading Trump’s plan to hand over our critical public water infrastructure to Wall Street,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, referring to McConnell and Chao, respectively. “We urgently need full federal funding going to Martin County and other aging systems across the country.”
“Large economic interests that own land and mineral assets in the area are contributing to the problem by not paying their fair share in taxes off of the wealth these assets create,” continued Hauter. “Harvard has the largest endowment in the nation, while people in the community can’t afford clean water. The income inequality that leads to water crisis like this is a national disgrace. We don’t need regressive water price hikes: we need to hold corporations accountable for extracting wealth and revenues from communities like Martin County.”
“It is unacceptable that the water system has had so many unaddressed issues over the years, and now residents are being left holding the bag,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, Inc., who is representing the group Concerned Citizens of Martin County before the state Public Service Committee. “The egregious mismanagement of public funds and the water system has only compounded problems since the Massey disaster nearly 20 years ago.”
“Martin County residents have suffered far too long,” said Amy Guerrieri and Jenifer Howard, co-founders of RAMP, a charitable organization focused on improving the lives of impoverished children and families through hunger and relief programs in the Martin County. “It’s creating disruption in the schools that have also impacted the nutritional needs of the community, with 100 percent of the kids relying on free school lunch programs. If you can’t easily bathe, you can’t easily attend school, and schools can’t function properly without clean water.”
This week, Representative Hal Rogers and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin secured $3.4 million for the Martin County Water District. This desperately needed funding eliminates the justification for an emergency rate hike, or any steep water rate hike, as it exceeds the system’s annual expenses and revenue needs. It also provides a sufficient financial cushion for political leaders in Washington and the state capitol to provide the full public funding the district needs without gouging the residents that have long been plagued with poor service and low-quality water.
To download the case study, visit https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/water-crisis-martin-county-kentucky.
Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.
Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467; [email protected]