How Have Disinfection Byproducts Impacted Eastern Kentucky’s Drinking Water?

By Sarah Birnbaum 

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. 

white woman with brown eyes and long straight light brown hair. Smiling. Wearing a white shirt.

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. 

How much is a glass of water?

by Sana Aslam

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. 

Martin County Concerned Citizen meeting.
Photo by Roger Smith, The Mountain Citizen.

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. 

MCCC collecting water tests at an intake site. Photo by Ricki Draper.

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. 

“If you are interested in participating in the East Kentucky Water Network, please contact Betsy Taylor

Jars of water from Martin County Water District customer’s tap, posted on “Martin County Water Warriors” Facebook Group by Hefner Hare, February, 2018.
The Teamsters delivering donated bottled water to Martin County during a water crisis. Photo by Ricki Draper.

Rural Prison Development Meets Water Crises

Rural Prison Bids 

In 2003, the most expensive federal prison to ever be built opened in Martin County, Kentucky near Inez. The project cost 149 million dollars. United States Penitentiary Big Sandy (USP Big Sandy) sits atop an abandoned Mountaintop Removal Site (MTR). Named after the nearby Big Sandy River, whose Shawnee name is Michechobekasepe, USP Big Sandy is just one of many federal prisons built upon or near Appalachian land that has been devastated by extractive strip mining. Since 1989, 29 federal prisons have been built in Central Appalachia [1]. 

USP Big Sandy, from Federal Bureau of Prisons 

The 1990s saw the proliferation of prisons across the rural United States [1]. During that time, bidding competitions to attract prisons into Appalachian towns became commonplace, and local policy makers believed prison construction would be a lifeline for economic growth [2]. For example, when a mining explosion led to a disastrous coal slurry spill in Martin County’s watershed in 2000, repairing and developing the District water infrastructure hinged on the bid for USP Big Sandy. Today, community members in Martin County express ongoing concerns with District funding directed towards the federal prison instead of directed towards addressing systemic and infrastructural bases of the water crisis. 

Research has shown that prison construction and operation does not deliver on economic development promises for rural towns. Further, any economic development promise of prisons has always hinged on the suffering of one’s fellow humans, particularly Black Americans, inside the prison walls [1]. This article hopes to distill scholarship on how the building of prisons in Appalachia does not empower rural communities nor their pressing concerns. In doing so, it hopes to highlight some implications prison development has had for the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky.  

Failed Promises for Local Economies  

In 2016, Drs. Perdue and Sanchagrin at Appalachian State University published a statistical analysis, identifying whether prisons help raise incomes and lower poverty rates in Appalachian counties. The authors found that the effect of prison building in Central Appalachia is significantly negative. In Central Appalachian counties where prisons were built from the years 1989 to 2013, the average income-adjusted per capita income was $836 less than in Central Appalachian counties where prisons were not built[1]. 

The authors also found that prison counties in Central Appalachia continue to have higher poverty rates than counties without a prison, even as unemployment tends to go down with jobs created to serve the industry. Perdue and Sanchagrin suggest that poverty persists even with lowered unemployment because jobs created for locals tend to be low-paying and lacking in benefits [1]. Employing local and area residents is not a priority for federal prisons [2]. When it comes to contracting, large national prison design companies, such as PJ Dick in the case of Martin County, are the main beneficiaries. These companies are familiar with what scholars have identified as the Bureau of Prison’s “building philosophy,” and they employ their own design personnel, neglecting community workforces [2]. 

Drs. Blankenship and Yanarella at Kentucky State University and University of Kentucky studied prison recruitment as a policy tool for local economic development. They note that higher paying management and correctional positions within prisons require experience and training that most local residents in prison counties do not have. The majority of employees working in federal prisons do not reside in the counties housing the prisons [2]. 

Of the 400 employees projected to work for the Martin County prison site in its planning, 176 were slated to be Bureau of Prison employees brought in from elsewhere and only 74 to be local hires. Prisons also profit from exploiting incarcerated individuals for inexpensive labor, further revealing how they don’t intend to create local jobs. In Kentucky, the U.S. Corrections Corporation relied upon unpaid prison labor on public and private construction projects for years, and the company received financial remuneration for doing so [2].

As seen with employment and hiring realities, federal prisons do not stimulate local economies. USP Big Sandy and other federal prisons are not required to pay real estate taxes to the towns in which they are located, so communities like Martin County gain no direct tax benefit from site location of federal penitentiaries other than taxes on wages of workers residing in the town. But again, the majority of federal prison employees drive into rural towns from larger areas [2]. 

The prison-industrial complex further attracts chain stores that notoriously pay low-wages into towns, rather than local retailers, and where federal prisons have been built, most locally owned businesses have closed [2]. In Martin County, seven McDonalds and seven Walmarts dot a circumference around USP Big Sandy. 

Figure 1. Google Maps result for McDonalds and Walmart in Martin County. 

With service contracts for prison food supply or inmate personal necessities, local businesses are also closed out of long-term deals. Given rigid standards required by the Bureau of Prisons, few local businesses are eligible to apply for such service contracts. Across Central Appalachia, the majority of prison service and supply contracts have been awarded to large, non-local or regional companies [2]. The development of federal penitentiaries has not bolstered local economies.

An Exacerbated Water Crisis

Seventeen years after the construction of USP Big Sandy, Martin County residents continue to face a water crisis. Decision makers, however, promised revenue from the penitentiary would save the town and repair the water infrastructure. 

A pilot study jointly conducted by scientists at University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment and citizen scientists with Martin County Concerned Citizens (MCCC) reports that in 2020, disinfection byproducts still pollute Martin County’s tap water and exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum contamination levels [3]. A few months earlier, an affordability study conducted by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in 2019 found that the Martin County Water District’s rate increases routinely leave residents with an unaffordable cost of water, exceeding the EPA standard for living [4]. 

Drs. Yanarella and Blankenship emphasize how the decision to construct prisons can influence the opportunity costs of investing in other avenues for community revitalization. They find that it is possible and likely that a large prison project can increase a community’s tax base while producing a growing burden on its infrastructure. Studies have found prisons lead to infrastructural problems far exceeding tax benefits gained from their construction [2]. This insight rings true when looking at what has happened with the water crisis alongside the federal prison in Martin County. 

In 2002, Martin County entered into a Joint Operations Agreement with the nearby town of Prestonsburg to pump water to the federal prison site. The agreement states that Prestonsburg and the Martin County Water District will each provide “up to 50% of the demand for the Big Sandy Federal Prison.” In an official letter to the Public Service Commission in 2017, the CEO of Prestonsburg Utilities Company writes that, “Since the inception of the service, Prestonsburg has been the predominant supplier of potable/fire protection water to its customer, the Big Sandy Federal Prison with very little assistance from the District.” 

But the Bureau of Prisons knew from the beginning that Martin County’s water supply was inadequate for the prison. Reporting has found that prisons, in fact, tend to be built upon or near hazardous water supplies, with incarcerated people forced to drink contaminated water. In a 2002 letter to Prestonsburg, the Bureau asked Prestonsburg to confirm its utilities would be able to supply adequate water, given nearby water problems in Martin County. Ever since, the Martin County Water District has not only failed to accrue revenue from the federal prison but it has also entered into $800,000 of debt due to its failed abilities to provide for USP Big Sandy. 

In a 2017 letter to the Public Service Commission, Martin County Water District customer Gary Ball wrote, “In regards to a number of complaints I have received lately from customers of the Martin County Water District regarding low water pressure at various times, I pose this question for the commission. I suspect these instances are due to the district attempting to pump water to the U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy when it is obvious it has the inability to do so without cutting water supply somewhere in its distribution system.” 

While the Water District struggles to meet the demands of the prison complex, residents’ continue to face challenges with water affordability, quality, and reliability. These two realities are not unrelated. 

In a 2019 op-ed in the Lexington Herald Leader, retired Martin County science teacher and Chairwoman of the Martin County Concerned Citizens Nina McCoy wrote, “In 2000, $2.55 million was designated to get water to a new federal prison and an industrial park on a taxpayer-funded ‘reclaimed’ mountaintop removal site. Another $3 million promised to ‘totally’ renovate the water plant, but was purportedly used for a new raw water intake instead. Fifteen years later, $4 million of the new money has been earmarked to get water to the same federal prison and industrial park because the previous system was so poorly done that it is dangerous.” 

Dr. Judah Schept at Eastern Kentucky University further explains this connection in the introduction to his forthcoming book Cages in the Coalfields: “The money to alleviate the water crisis of today is there, it just resides in the wrong place, lining the pockets of coal executives and sunk into the infrastructures of enclosure and captivity. The histories and legacies of the wars on poverty and crime, as well as the changes to the coal industry, accumulated and converged in the building and operation of USP Big Sandy on an abandoned MTR site” [5].  

For all the ways that development research has shown that prisons negatively impact the communities they reside in, we may also think of these failures as part of a continued neglect dealt to marginalized populations, both those in rural communities and those incarcerated within prison walls. Take USP Big Sandy and Martin County’s imminent water crisis: federal prison building projects are certainly not tools for rural economic development. Rather, they contribute burdens to communities in which they reside. In Martin County and beyond, much further investigation is required into how uses of public revenue for rural development exacerbate existing burdens communities face, such as a pressing and chronic water crisis. 

Scholarship Referenced  

[1] Robert Todd Perdue and Kenneth Sanchagrin (2016) “Imprisoning Appalachia: The Socioeconomic Impacts of Prison Development.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 23(2).

[2] Ernest Yanarella and Susan Blankenship (2007) “Big House on the Rural Landscape: Prison Recruitment as a policy tool of local economic development.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 12(2). 

[3] Jason Unrine et. al (2020) “Preliminary Technical Report: The Martin County Kentucky Community-Engaged Drinking Water Health Pilot Study.” University of Kentucky. 

[4] Mary Cromer and Ricki Draper (2019) “Drinking Water Affordability Crisis, Martin County, Kentucky.” Appalachian Citizens Law Center. 

[5] Judah Schept (Forthcoming) Cages in the Coalfields: Extraction and Disposal in Carceral America. NYU Press. 

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.