New research shows that failing infrastructure causes significant contamination of drinking water in many Eastern Kentucky water systems. One kind of contamination is disinfection byproducts, which result from the mixing of organic matter and chlorine-based disinfectants during the water sanitation process. Improper maintenance of infrastructure is the main culprit for these violations, as there may be leaks in pipes or low water pressure that can permit organic matter to mix with chlorine, causing these byproducts to form. When consumed or inhaled, disinfection byproducts can yield adverse health impacts, including increased risk for certain cancers in addition to an increased risk for cardiac birth defects. The University of Kentucky, Martin County Concerned Citizens, and Ricky Draper (LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) recently completed collaborative research in Martin County that found elevated disinfection byproduct levels, with 47% of samples being above the EPA maximum contaminant level (Pratt 2020). Additionally, 99% of residents have had issues with their drinking water including, but not limited to: odor, color, and taste.
To continue this research, I examined disinfection byproduct levels of adjacent counties in Eastern Kentucky through the Kentucky Drinking Water Watch website. Data analysis demonstrated trihalomethane (THM) was the most frequently elevated disinfection byproduct, often exceeding the EPA maximum contaminant level. Additionally, it was discovered that two other nearby counties hold similar violations to Martin County: Wolfe County (22 violations 2009-2019) and Boyd County (41 violations 2009-2019), bringing up concern for possible disinfection byproduct exposure for residents that reside in these areas. Overall, Martin County still holds significant disinfection byproduct violations, (33 violations 2009-2019). This research has provided a step to address water contamination in Eastern Kentucky and help identify where new infrastructure is likely needed to combat disinfection byproduct contamination. Hopefully, in the near future, Eastern Kentucky residents will have access to clean, safe drinking water free of disinfection byproducts.
Sarah Birnbaum, LiKEN Research Assistant
Sarah is a senior at The University of California, Santa Barbara double majoring in Environmental Studies and The History of Art & Architecture planning to pursue a career in Environmental Justice. Within the realm of Environmental Justice, she is especially interested in sustainable community development and public health. Outside of school Sarah enjoys hiking with her German Shepherd, doing yoga, and cooking new meals. She has been excited to be a part of the LIKEN team, having the opportunity to learn from community members, in addition to having the ability to share her knowledge and passion for Environmental Justice with others.
Ricki Draper (past LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) and Mary Cromer (Deputy Director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center) published an Appalachian Citizens Law Center (ACLC) report (September 2019) examining water affordability and the impact of rate increases in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. County residents have been organizing around water quality and demanding accountability from their local district government since a 2000 coal slurry spill into the nearby waterways. Martin County has one of the highest costs for water which many residents do not rely on for drinking, cooking or hygiene. This is due to the water’s known murky color and hazardous qualities.
The study grounds itself in the issue of water burden, which the authors define as the percent of a household’s income spent on its water bill. Presenting water burden for households in 10 income brackets and using the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard for affordability, the study finds that water is unaffordable for over 45.8% of Martin County households. The EPA upholds that a water burden of 2.5% or above is unaffordable, and for 18.1% of Martin County households with incomes below $10,000 — the water burden is 6.5%, which is more than twice the EPA threshold. Findings indicate this burden is even higher for Martin County’s 1,229 SSI recipients, who would be spending 7.97% of their income on water with the district’s rates. This is more than three times the EPA threshold.
16% of household water meters were disconnected between July 2018-June 2019, further demonstrating the unaffordability of the district’s current rates. Martin County residents cannot afford ongoing rate increases. The district claims the increases are to acquire revenue to fix the water system, but this system has neglected residents for years. Residents are concerned about how the district allocates public revenue towards projects that do not best serve the needs of their communities.
The report concludes with several suggestions for responding to the affordability crisis, such as asking the district to protect citizens – especially their most vulnerable – from ongoing rate increases. The authors urge the Public Service Commission to consider affordability when setting public utility rates and to explore alternative rate structures.
Since the report was published, the water district has entered into a contract with the outside management company Alliance Water Resources. In the study report, the authors note that over the past year, the district’s water loss rates have varied from 72.8% in August 2018 to 57.4% in February 2019. In September 2019, the average water loss rate for the year in Martin County was 69.54%.
At the Martin County water board meeting held in July, the district reported that the water loss rate was 70.77% in June 2020. Six months into Alliance’s management, 37, 173 gallons of water were lost out of the 52, 524 gallons produced. Citizens have also expressed recent concerns over higher water bills, which Alliance has said is due to their transition to new software that reads to the nearest ten gallons as opposed to the nearest 1,000 gallons. Martin County citizens continue to advocate for infrastructural changes and an urgent need for funding to be allocated towards improving water quality and water affordability.
Eastern Kentucky Water Network
LiKEN has helped convene a vibrant Eastern Kentucky Water Network (EKWN), composed of organizations and individuals working passionately on water issues across Eastern Kentucky. The network was formed in late 2019, and continues to meet bimonthly since then. EKWN provides a platform for stakeholders to work together to secure clean and affordable drinking water and improved watershed quality in Eastern Kentucky. The Network hopes to equip Eastern Kentucky residents with the capacity to affect and change water related policies at the local, state, and national level.
Tap Water Study
Martin County residents have long distrusted their district’s water system. For more than a decade, residents have regularly received notifications in water bills that disinfectant byproduct levels have exceeded EPA maximum contaminant levels. A recent collaborative tap water study — the first of its kind — confirms how water in the county exceeds the U.S. EPA maximum contaminant levels for cancer associated disinfection byproducts and coliform bacteria.
The University of Kentucky College of Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES) and citizen scientists from Martin County Concerned Citizens worked together to pilot the study. Over the course of the 2018-2019 calendar year, Ricki Draper and Nina McCoy visited 97 households in Martin County to collect water samples for chemical analysis and to administer a survey aimed at evaluating community health concerns.
Preliminary findings were published this year and reported back in a community forum in July. 47% of household samples had at least one contaminant that exceeded at least one U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level or secondary maximum contaminant level. The study also found that 99% of respondents reported concerns with their drinking water, including problems with odor, appearance, taste, and water pressure. Only 12% of respondents reported actually using tap water for drinking water.
UK-CARES and MCCC will continue to work to examine these issues more in depth and to develop technical tools to help water utilities respond to the problems that have been identified.
Customers of a Kentucky water district notorious for reports of poor water quality and frequent outages are at risk of another major rate hike, potentially making “the worst water district … in the state of Kentucky,” as one official put it, one of the most expensive.