HARLAN, Ky. -- David Wilburn stood in the kitchen of his Harlan County home and filled a gallon jug from the faucet and held it up to the light.
“It might be clear right now, but that’s just until they have another leak,” Wilburn said as he looked for any discoloration or sediments floating to the bottom.
When service lines break near his home, Wilburn said the tap water can be muddy for days at a time. Those periods have left him questioning the quality of his water, which he doesn’t even like to use for bathing.
“It’s constantly under a boil water advisory,” Wilburn said.
Like many people in Appalachian Kentucky, Wilburn doesn’t drink the water that comes out the tap. Instead, he buys bottled water to cook, drink and make coffee.
Skepticism and fear cause many families here — one of the poorest parts of the country — to spend as much as $50 a month on bottled drinking water. That’s on top of monthly water bills that many say are already too high.
Years of frequent boil water advisories and sometimes long stints of dirty water have gutted people’s trust in their tap water. Some worry about the health of their children. Others say the water makes them feel itchy and gives them rashes.
Wilburn won’t even use tap water to wash off vegetables or leafy greens before he makes salads.
“You could go house to house here and everybody would tell you about this water, about the quality and how it goes off,” he said. “When they start having that trouble, it’s brown for a long time.”
“It tears me all to pieces,” he said.
Wilburn is a customer of Cawood Water District, which serves about 1,600 houses and businesses in Harlan County. Since January 2016, Cawood Water District has issued 52 boil water advisories, mostly because of line breaks.
The district, like many others in the region, has grappled with high rates of water loss from leaking service lines, which allow groundwater and sediment to enter the pipes.
In nearby Pike County, Mountain Water District issued about 190 boil water advisories during the same time period, though that district serves a much larger area. Floyd County’s Southern Water and Sewer District issued about 30 advisories during that time.
The resulting dirty water can cause financial pains, as well. Cawood Water District customer Linda Allen said her last water heater worked only one year and eight months before it broke.
According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Energy, water heaters should last between eight and 20 years. Poor water quality is the primary cause of water heaters not reaching their potential lifespan, according to the report.
“When it’s real nasty, we’ve gotten to where we don’t run no hot water,” Linda Allen said. “It’ll get nasty in there.”
Before she throws her white T-shirts and sheets in the washing machine, Allen opens the lid of her toilet and peers in. The water is usually clear, but occasionally she finds water “as brown as any muddy river you’ve ever seen.” Other times, a layer of dirty sediment rests on the bottom.
“You can’t wash your clothes in muddy, nasty water,” Allen said. “I’ve heard people talking — they’ve ruined their sheets and everything, — so I try to keep a watch on mine in the commode and not do no washing or nothing when it’s nasty — and I call it nasty cause it’s nasty.”
Kentucky water districts are beholden to the federal Safe Water Drinking Act. The law sets quality standards and allows the Kentucky Division of Water to monitor districts throughout the state.
According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many districts in Eastern Kentucky are listed as in violation or “serious violators” of the law.
Districts can breach the Safe Water Drinking Act in a number of ways, including failing to alert residents of line breaks and exceeding safe levels for “disinfection byproducts” — chemicals created during the treatment process when chlorine interacts with organic matter, such as raw sewage.
John Sullivan, chief engineer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said drinking water with levels of disinfection byproducts that exceed federal standards are unlikely to hurt most people, but that some more sensitive parts of the population — infants, the elderly and pregnant women, for example — could be at risk.
“We want to meet or exceed all the regulations that are out there, because the public health community has determined that if you’re over these things, somebody could be hurt,” Sullivan said. “If you’re over the number of (disinfection byproducts), then you’ve got to bring that down.”
Since January 2016, water samples collected from the Martin County Water District have exceeded Safe Water Drinking Act limits for disinfection byproducts at least 12 times, according to data provided by the Kentucky Division of Water. The district is currently in compliance with those regulations, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
Mountain Water District in Pike County has been a “serious violator” for six of the last 12 quarters, including the three most recent quarters, mostly for exceeding disinfection byproducts limits. Southern Water and Sewer District in Floyd County also has been a “serious violator” for six of the last 12 quarters.
Cawood Water District has been in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act every quarter for the last three years for violating public notice regulations, but not for water quality, according to EPA records. Public notice rules require districts to “immediately alert consumers if there is a serious problem with their drinking water that may pose a risk to public health,” according to the EPA.
Jenkins Water System in Letcher County also has been in violation or a “serious violator” for each of the last 12 quarters, but mostly for public notice regulations.
Safe Water Drinking Act records give some indication of a district’s water quality, but the law’s requirements for testing and its enforcement provisions are weak, said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center who has worked on water system issues in Eastern Kentucky.
Water can meet quality standards set by the Safe Water Drinking Act when it leaves the plant, but the act provides “very little recourse for the problems that are occurring as the water gets into the lines,” Cromer said.
‘It’s a basic human right’
In many areas, dirty tap water is the result of broken service lines and irregular pressure, but some residents in Martin County also fear residual effects from a coal slurry spill in 2000, when 250 million gallons of toxic sludge poured into the Tug Fork river.
The river remains the sole source of water for the Martin County Water District, which serves about 3,500 homes and businesses in the county.
Martin County resident BarbiAnn Maynard has been complaining about water quality problems for years. Soon after the spill, she noticed new warnings on the back of her water bills. The warnings said pregnant women, infants, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems should consult a physician before drinking the water. They also warned residents of a possibly higher risk of cancer due to the water.
The water district’s infrastructure, which has fed dirty and discolored water into the homes of many residents, isn’t capable of dealing with the arsenic and toxic materials that remain in the river, she contends.
Videos posted by residents have shown the result of these problems — water that looks bright white, dark brown, and even blue.
“Water should be clear and odorless, and that’s something we don’t have here, and haven’t for a very long time,” Maynard said. “It’s a basic human right, to have clean water. We’re in the United States of America, we’re in Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. We have beauty, we have nature, we have water — it’s just the good water is not getting to the people.”
‘We don’t put out bad water’
Most water district officials say the water they produce meets federal standards and is safe to drink.
Lana Pace, finance officer for the Cawood Water District, said she thinks people’s concerns about quality are legitimate, but “are they correct? No.”
“We don’t put out bad water,” Pace said.
She said the district pays thousands of dollars every month to have its water tested by multiple independent laboratories, but a lack of trust in water quality remains common throughout Harlan County and the rest of Eastern Kentucky.
That distrust, she said, is largely fueled by the frequency of boil water advisories, but it’s compounded by other environmental factors, such as surface coal mining and the use of straight pipes — sewage lines that dump raw waste directly into streams or the ground.
“People get aggravated with us when we put on the boil water (advisories), but you know, that’s a precaution,” she said. “I do know that I trust the water. I always did. I always used it.”
Though she trusts the water, Pace said water districts throughout the region face major infrastructure issues that lead to outages, and those outages can impact people’s health and way of life.
She thinks local, state and federal politicians aren’t doing enough to address the crisis that many water districts face in this part of the state: declining populations coupled with an ever-mounting list of maintenance issues means water district have less money to do more work.
That can lead to major problems, Pace said.
“We shouldn’t have to wonder when we turn the faucet on, is there gonna be water,” she said. “It should be a priority. I know you worry about jobs and you worry about this, and I do too, but I worry about people’s health.”
“Let’s stir the politicians up,” she said. “Be calling your judges, be calling your senators, your representatives, your governors.”
Wilburn, the Cawood customer, said he wishes public money that is spent on new government buildings and tourist attractions would instead be used to repair the region’s failing web of water lines, or to build new water holding tanks, or to dig a reservoir as a backup water source during long outages.
“If they can put these skateboard parks up and all that, they need to put up something that’s essential,” Wilburn said. “They’re doing stuff to help them, but not us.”
This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation.