Water Affordability Meets Disability Rights

A recent study of water affordability in an eastern Kentucky county highlights the voices of disabled community members.

In 2019, Appalachian Citizens Law Center (ACLC) published findings on Martin County’s water affordability crisis and the impact of rate increases by the district’s water management. The report was co-authored by Mary Cromer (ACLC Deputy Director) and Ricki Draper (past LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator).

One of the individuals who is interviewed and featured in the study is county resident Timmy Smith. 

Timmy is in his mid 50s and grew up in eastern Kentucky, where his father dug coal underground for 23 years from 1965 to 1995. 

In the late 70s, Timmy’s family well, and all of his neighbor’s wells, went dry. He remembers that all the families lost their wells in the same afternoon, and it was clear to everyone that this was because of mining on a nearby ridge. Cromer and Draper note that “none of the families were compensated for their loss, but instead were hooked up immediately to the county’s water system, the county’s preferred way of dealing with wells sunk due to mining.” Today, Timmy lives with the continued impacts of this history.

Importantly, Timmy is disabled and relies solely on the disability checks he receives from the federal government each month. For him, the water district’s rate increases mean having to choose between purchasing medicine, groceries, or paying his water bill. He wishes he was still on the well system. 

In their analysis of affordability, Draper and Cromer bring attention to a nuance that scholarship and policy on Appalachian water systems have overlooked. The report emphasizes that Martin County’s unaffordable water prices disproportionately impact the county’s 1, 229 Social Security Income (SSI) recipients. 

Water burden refers to the percentage of a household’s income that is spent on its water bill. For 18.1% of Martin County households with incomes below $10,000, their water burden is 6.5%. This is more than twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) threshold for affordable water (2.5%). Disabled residents in Martin County, however, spend an even higher percentage of their income on water. Their water burden can be up to 8% —more than three times the EPA threshold. 24.6% of Martin County’s population under the age of 65 is disabled, and 11% of Martin County residents receive SSI. 

When decision-makers seek to address water systems and affordability in Martin County and in counties across Appalachia, disability rights must be integral to the process.

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, 7.3% of people living in Appalachia receive disability benefits. This is higher than the national percentage of people who receive disability benefits at 5.1%. Central Appalachia, which includes eastern Kentucky, has an even higher percentage of people receiving disability benefits at 13.9% of its population.  

Cromer and Draper note that the Martin district’s water disconnection activities further demonstrate the unaffordability of current rates: “From July 2018 to June 2019, the district disconnected 511 meters and reconnected 394. That is a shutoff rate of 16%. In comparison, the average large water utility nationwide disconnected only 5% of its residential customers in 2015. Further, the district reports that it sent 300 disconnection notices in July 2019. Disconnections further exacerbate the problem of affordability, as customers are required to pay a $40 disconnection fee and an additional $40 fee to reinstate their service.” 

The impacts of water disconnection on those living with disability has not been explicitly studied. Disability justice movements throughout history, however, have raised awareness about how many environments that we take to be “natural” are built by our societies and built in ways that don’t always include everyone.

Ruth Crum, another Martin County resident, told Cromer and Draper that, “Our bills are already around $81.00 or higher a month. We are on Social Security, we can’t afford higher water bills…Our income doesn’t go up. Most people in the county are on fixed income. If they raise our water bill, we will disconnect our city water.” 

Water infrastructure is part of our built environment, and we can notice that it is built to be disconnected. This reality emphasizes an urgency for infrastructural changes that treat water as a human right, that are built to be equitable and accessible. Future studies and action around public water systems and affordability will be well suited in following Cromer and Draper’s lead, listening to and centering the concerns and knowledge of disabled community members in the fight for equitable, affordable, and clean drinking water for all. 

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