Kentucky Community Hopes Trump Infrastructure Plan Will Fix Water System

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Martin County relies on a water treatment plant that was built in 1968.

As President Trump promises major investment in infrastructure, people across the country are hoping that includes spending on water pipes for drinking.

Flint, Mich., was a high-profile example of the many communities — like one in Eastern Kentucky — where people just can't trust their water.

In Martin County, Ky., the water intake pulls from a river heavily contaminated by sewage and years of coal and gas extraction.

Josie Delong, a resident of the county, says she used to drink tap water until a doctor told her it could be the cause of her health issues.

"I had really, really bad bleeding ulcers to the point where I was actually blacking out," she says. "So I go to my doctor. The first thing he tells me is, 'Contaminated water. How's your drinking water?' "

Now, she says she does all she can to avoid drinking from the tap. She even puts bottled water in her children's bathroom when they brush their teeth.

The county water treatment plant needs serious upgrades, and the distribution pipes are so leaky that they lose more water than they deliver.

On cold winter nights, when customers leave their taps running to keep their pipes from freezing, the water district would cut the water off. If not, the tanks wouldn't refill, and there wouldn't be enough water to flush toilets.

But when cut off, there's no pressure in the pipes, and filth can seep through the cracks. When the system is once again turned on, the water can be brown or black and very smelly.

At a public meeting last year, Joe Hammond of the county water district faced a crowd that was angry about the lack of warning before the cut-offs.

The Martin County water district is under state investigation for the third time since 2002. When they find a leaky pipe, Hammond says all they can do is patch it up.

"You've got a little hole there already — it's going to get bigger," he says. "We just don't have the money to replace it with right now."

Though the county has produced millions of dollars in coal and gas, little of the wealth has been invested in the water system. As the local coal industry has continued to decline, it's only become more difficult to find money for infrastructure investments.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says water infrastructure is a priority. But Gail Brion of the University of Kentucky, who has worked on water treatment issues for decades, is skeptical.

She says she worries water pipes can't compete with more visible projects like roads and bridges.

"What you're seeing is a long history of non-investment that's now starting to cause long-term problems, but it's not flashy," she says. "That's one of the problems with drinking water is that it's underground — it's hidden."

State and local officials say they'll be looking out for any federal spending that could help rebuild trust in the county's tap water. The cost of rebuilding the system is estimated at $13.5 million.

Benny Becker reports for the public radio collaborative Ohio Valley ReSource.

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