The current Public Service Commission (PSC) decided that the ratepayers of Martin County Water District must pay for the sins of the past. A section of the July 9 PSC order is headed with “Martin District Continues to Pay for the Mismanagement of the Past.” That might be acceptable if the ratepayers had committed those sins or even if the majority had been silent witnesses who benefited from them.
I first became aware of the problems of our water system after the October 2000 Massey Coal Slurry spill, but others in the county told me the troubles were longstanding. The mayor of Warfield at that time gave me a report from the Division of Water (DOW) in Frankfort from 2000 showing several immediate deficiencies including the “filter control valves do not operate properly.”
Despite this, the EPA allowed the district to begin pumping from the sludge-laden waters of the Tug River after the temporary line froze and burst just before Christmas. When the citizens demanded to know what state and federal agencies were going to do to protect our drinking water, EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) out of Atlanta, along with the DOW and Frankfort officials held a community meeting in March 2001. In the report for that meeting Richard Nickle of ATSDR that our worries were insignificant because “(1)the concentration of chemicals in the coal slurry would have been reduced from the intake…(2)the duration of exposure is relatively short compared to one’s lifetime…(3)the treatment plant has shown itself capable of removing these chemicals…(4)the coal slurry was never taken into the plant because the intake was closed.”
We knew that none of these were true, but we were silenced. Nickle also wrote that “there was a lot of anger and resentment in the community.”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation into the cause of the disaster was halted by their boss in DC, Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell’s wife and a billion-dollar company was slapped on the wrist with a $5,500 fine while ratepayers were told our water plant was “fine.”
A 2002 PSC investigation found that our “water plant is in a general state of disrepair. The plant has lost most of the redundancy…and if a critical piece of equipment…were to fail, the plant would be unable to supply water to the distribution system.”
For the next 14 years we received quarterly notices that our drinking water was in violation for trihalomethanes (THMs) and halo acetic acids (HAAs) which are formed when organic material not properly “filtered” from the water encounters chlorine used to kill bacteria.
In 2006, another inspection by the PSC showed the exact same inadequacies of the plant.
In June 2016, State Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting “in response to a number of complaints” from customers. The Mountain Citizen reported that one resident left in disgust and Josie Delong of Martin County Water Warriors said “she was disappointed by what she viewed as lack of concern by the Division of Water.”
In 20 years, voters have changed judges and fiscal court members several times but Frankfort continues to listen to a few who have denied the problems. Recently, after our County Judge Executive resigned, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear selected a fiscal court member, Victor Slone, who, in March 2016 told Senator Jones the reason the county had not requested his help in receiving funds was because “there are no problems and the water utility has never had any problems.”
To their credit, the current PSC has allowed the Martin County Concerned Citizens a voice as intervenors in the third investigation. After 20 years of agencies and leaders from DC, Atlanta, Frankfort, and this county refusing to listen to the voices of the people, the ratepayers in one of the poorest counties in the nation are being asked to pay the highest minimum water rates in the state.
Nina McCoy is the chair of Martin County Concerned Citizens. She lives in Inez.