Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Failing water systems, Southern photo stories, & 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads

When someone turns on their faucet in Martin County, Kentucky, the water that comes out is often gray, brown, or yellow. Sometimes it’s nonexistent. Other times it smells weird, or has known chemical toxins in it. Occasionally, it’s clean and drinkable. For years, the system has lost most of its water because of leaky pipes and tanks—in 2016, water loss in the district reached a staggering 64 percent. 

The harsh cold snap that blew through the Eastern U.S. in January was too much for the system to handle, causing the pipes to freeze. The district shut off some customers’ water at night, reporting that there was “high water usage, busted meters, etc.” People were letting their water run to prevent their own pipes from freezing, and the district said there wasn’t enough water to do that.

“Everybody that has city water has to go buy drinking water,” one woman told theLexington Herald Leader after the water shut off. “You turn it on, and it smells like bleach.”

And then, the situation got worse: the Martin County Water District said the district is on the verge of financial collapse. Kentucky’s Public Service Commission is deciding on a proposal for the district to raise its rates by 50 percent to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars. Martin County, which is near the Kentucky-West Virginia state border, has a population of about 12,000 people. More than 90 percent are white, and 40 percent are in poverty. 

This news comes the same week as President Trump’s first State of the Union address to the nation, in which he repeatedly glorified the fossil fuel industry before saying “as we rebuild our industries, it is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.” Trump called on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for new infrastructure investment, and said the processes should be streamlined so that the projects can get done in “no more than two years, and perhaps even one.”

This issue is nothing new in Martin County, which has struggled with its decades-old pipes and water tanks for years. Residents have also long dealt with other water crises. In 2000, the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy broke into an abandoned mine below, sending more than 300 million gallons down tributaries of the Tug Fork River and launching a controversial investigation during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Then, in 2016, Whitehouse Creek in Martin County ran bright yellow, which state officials attributed to paint spills from shipping containers that were being used as garbage cans. Some residents were worried about their well water, since they don’t hook up to the municipal system because it is so inefficient and expensive.