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 2000the 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 yellowwhich 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.


The Tug Fork River, which crosses though West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Credit: Flickr user Jimmy Emerson

A draft proposal of Trump’s infrastructure plan recently obtained by the Washington Post showed that key environmental protections would be loosened to make it easier to build roads, bridges, and pipelines across the U.S. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers report card, Kentucky alone needs $6.2 billion of drinking water infrastructure over the next two decades. According to the Brookings Institute, 96 percent of public spending on drinking water and wastewater facilities each year is done by states and localities, not the federal government.

Martin County is only one small region in dire straits—there were also water outages inPerry County, Kentucky earlier this year, and the state has one of the highest rates of health-based violations of federal drinking water laws. In 2017, I wrote in Southerly about degraded water infrastructure all over this region, from Jackson, Mississippi, to Lebanon, Tennessee. EPA chief Scott Pruitt briefly mentioned water infrastructure after he was confirmed, and proposed a “war on lead” this week at his first Senate hearing since then.

There are about 52,000 community water systems in the U.S, which criss-cross county lines, political divides, and water company jurisdictions. While the Trump administration talks up a big infrastructure plan, it likely won’t be able to address the multitude of problems plaguing these systems, which are only worsening as times goes on. This week, the CEO of American Water Works, which is America’s largest water utility company, said that Trump’s push to cut permitting processes could impact water quality standards. There are 1,400 microbes that can affect drinking water, but the EPA regulates only 90 contaminants. American Water is working with the agency to test 40 of those not yet monitored, according to Reuters.

On top of that, there’s the fracking boom in Appalachia and elsewhere throughout the U.S., as well as the government’s push for more fossil fuel extraction in general—things that could impact drinking water and local waterways. Then there are the effects of climate change: scientists say it could be part of the reason for the frigid weather in the Southeast this winter, and flooding is threatening many of the nation’s stormwater systems. Meanwhile, Texas is in a drought post-Hurricane Harvey and the U.S. Western snowpack is at extremely low levels.  

Still, as often happens with local infrastructure issues, Martin County’s lack of clean water has been kept relatively quiet outside of local news outlets, chalked up to a backwards local government and prohibitively expensive solutions. This story—just like the story of Flint or any other city with similar water problems—ties into a host of bigger topics: the fossil fuel economy, poverty in America, racial justice, government corruption. All of that can and will be debated. At this moment, though, there is a growing number of vulnerable people in the U.S. without access to clean water, and little being done about it, no matter where they live. Whatever institutions or people or administrations are to blame, the promises being made are too big to keep. 

That leads me to a question: Are you a Southerner living in a place with water quality/water infrastructure issues? I want to know how your community is responding, and if people are coming up with creative ways to shed light on this issue or fix local water systems. Please email me:

Stories worth your time

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The EPA’s emission factors data are used to gauge air quality. But according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation, the data is becoming increasingly unreliable because of things like aging equipment. About 62 percent of the 22,000 emissions factors the agency uses are rated as “below average” or “poor.” Nearly 22 percent aren’t rated at all, and only one in six has been updated. The investigation looks at Houston as an example, but I’m curious: How concerned are you about air quality where you live? Tell me about

The EPA is asking chemical company Chemours to test water near its plant in West Virginia for the presence of the chemical GenX, which the agency says has “been detected in three on-site production wells and one on-site drinking water well,” The Intercept reports. GenX, an alternative to the chemical PFOA, is used to make Teflon and other products and has been associated with cancers, autoimmune diseases. It was also found in North Carolina communities’ drinking water.