Kentucky resident: Rainwater better to drink

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta follows residents in Martin County, Kentucky, as they urge President Donald Trump to take the clean water issue seriously a part of his touted infrastructure plan.

Posted: Apr 3, 2018 4:53 AM
Updated: Apr 3, 2018 4:53 AM

For the past 20 years, Hope Workman has hustled up a dirt path on the side of a mountain in Lovely, Kentucky, just to get drinking water. She doesn't trust what comes out of her tap.

If she's by herself, she'll take her ATV. If one of her daughters is coming along, they take their four-wheel-drive truck. It takes her about seven minutes to grind up the hill before she reaches her destination: a small plastic well tapped into the side of the mountain with a 3½-foot PVC pipe.

The day CNN visited, the temperature was just above freezing, and Hope's hands shivered as she filled jug after jug with crystal-clear drinking water.

"This is what we go through to get water, unfortunately," she said.

Workman is not the only person in Martin County, Kentucky, or America for that matter, who struggles to get clean water. Two well-publicized crises include Flint, Michigan's, lead contamination and Puerto Rico's failing water systems in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

As our water infrastructure system ages, experts say, keeping America's water clean becomes increasingly challenging. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's drinking water infrastructure a grade of D.

According to the the society, about 1 million miles of pipes crisscross the country to deliver us clean water, much of it overseen by local municipalities that are challenged with aging hardware. Many of these pipes were laid underground nearly a century ago and are reaching the end of their life spans. As they age, they can crack, and water breaks become more common. In fact, the entire country loses nearly 6 billion gallons of water a day just to leaky pipes.

For many cash-strapped local utilities, it's difficult to find the resources to manage a problem we rarely see.

Faucets run brown

But when the problem does come to the surface, it's hard to ignore. Just ask the residents of Martin County. Customers of the county's water district post videos and pictures on social media of brown cloudy water spouting out of their taps. Sometimes, it comes out looking like blue Gatorade. Sometimes, it smells like diesel fuel.

Locals ask themselves, "Just what's in the water?"

Until several months ago, customers received notices on the back of their water bills stating that their water had been tested and found to be above federal limits of trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. These contaminants are a reaction between the chlorine used to treat the water for bacteria and organic matter that may be found in the water or the pipes. Exposure to these chemicals could mean an increased risk of cancer.

Eastern Kentucky has some of the highest levels of cancer in the country due to smoking and obesity, but residents here also wonder whether their water is to blame.

'We're just scared of the water'

Martin County resident BarbiAnn Maynard is convinced that her mother's cancer was related to the water.

"We don't really know what to do. We're just scared of the water and have been for years," she said.

"You're afraid to wash your hands if you've got a cut," Maynard said. Taking a shower is no better. "I don't feel like I'm getting clean. I might smell a little bit better, but I don't feel any better about it."

Dr. Don Lafferty, a local physician, feels that he's in a difficult position when patients ask him whether the water is the source of their health issues. "I can't tell them it's safe or it isn't safe," he told CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"We shouldn't have to be asking ... in 2018 whether or not water is causing cancer in our region."

Where the War on Poverty began

Nestled in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, Martin County has had a long history tied to coal. Between 1918 and 2015, the county produced more than 436 million tons of coal. But as the coal industry died out, Martin County struggled. Nearly 40% of its population lives at or below the federal poverty level. The unemployment rate in the county is almost double the national rate.

But poverty has been endemic to the area for years. President Lyndon Johnson came here in 1964 to launch his War on Poverty.

"In 2018, in the very place where LBJ declared war on poverty ... water is our number one issue. That's hard to imagine," said Gary Ball, editor-in-chief of the local weekly newspaper, The Mountain Citizen.

What's happened in Martin County is a worst-case scenario that may be happening in other parts of the country, said Lindell Ormsbee, director of the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Kentucky.

"I think it's somewhat of a systematic representation of what's happening in a lot of other places where no one's looking. It's almost like the proverbial canary in the mine," Ormsbee said.

What is happening?

A large part of the issue in Martin County is just hardware itself. There are about 300 miles of piping that deliver water across the county, placed up and over rocky terrain, making them even more susceptible to leaking. Today, more than half of the water that leaves the Martin County Water District treatment center doesn't make it to the faucet.

When water systems are operating optimally, there is enough going through the pipes at a high enough pressure that debris from outside the pipe can't make its way inside. Essentially, there's so much water going through so quickly that even if there is a crack in the pipe, the water can act as a barrier. But as soon as that pressure drops or there's less water going through the pipes, there is suddenly room for soil, debris and chemical residue to sneak into the drinking water.

And because of the leakage issues, the Water District hasn't been able to flush the water lines clean in years, said Joe Burns of the Kentucky Rural Water Association. "As far as systematic lines, it's been years since it's even been able to be accomplished."

Burns' group is working with the Martin County Water District to help make improvements as best as they can. They've been able to reduce the levels of byproduct contaminants to under federal limits by simply changing where they add the chlorine.

But on top of issues with the lines, there are upgrades to the water treatment facilities, pumps and meters that still need to be made.

Investments in hardware and software are needed

For a financially struggling municipality, it is hard to find resources outside raising water rates, which is difficult for a community of people who mostly live on a limited income.

Infrastructure isn't just pipes and hardware, Ormsbee said; it also includes financial and technical management.

Small water systems, such as Martin County, that serve less than 10,000 customers supply water to nearly 20% of the country. In addition to infrastructure and financial challenges, many of these systems can have a difficult time attracting the technical expertise to help. In fact, small systems made up 72% of EPA violations in 2015 and 2016.

Some citizens in Martin County feel that they've been forgotten. "Appalachia has been at the forefront in helping to improve this country for many years. ... We've sent people to die in all of our country's wars. We've populated this country with people in all industries," Lafferty said. "We are Americans, too."

Ball points to a new government center and a business complex in Inez, the county seat. The cost is nearly $20 million, money that he said could have been spent on upgrading the water system.

Some relief

Recently, Martin County received federal grants amounting to $3.4 million to go toward its water system. Experts believe that overhauling the system would take $13.5 million to $15 million.

President Trump's infrastructure proposal gives some residents hope. The $1.5 trillion plan touted by the White House is supposed to cover all infrastructure upgrades in the nation, but experts believe that it would cost the country $1 trillion just to maintain and meet the demands for drinking water for the next 25 years.

Critics further point out the White House's plan earmarks only $200 billion in federal investment. The remainder is to be made up by the states and the private sector.

"Time will tell," Lafferty said. "Politicians should remember that 'forgotten people' usually have long memories."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 60898

Reported Deaths: 1698
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin19271835
Ramsey7572265
Dakota4414106
Anoka3683114
Stearns289320
Washington212845
Nobles17646
Olmsted173223
Scott155919
Mower11012
Rice10328
Blue Earth9185
Wright8845
Carver8613
Clay78440
Sherburne7238
Kandiyohi6961
St. Louis55319
Todd4262
Lyon4253
Freeborn3591
Steele3482
Nicollet33713
Benton3203
Watonwan3080
Winona26116
Beltrami2400
Crow Wing23514
Le Sueur2201
Martin2075
Chisago2011
Goodhue1969
Otter Tail1943
McLeod1810
Cottonwood1780
Becker1571
Pipestone1579
Polk1534
Waseca1480
Itasca14712
Douglas1441
Carlton1370
Unassigned13441
Pine1290
Dodge1270
Isanti1250
Murray1221
Chippewa1041
Morrison921
Wabasha920
Brown892
Faribault870
Jackson860
Meeker852
Rock850
Sibley832
Koochiching773
Pennington751
Cass722
Mille Lacs713
Renville645
Fillmore630
Lincoln580
Grant553
Swift531
Roseau520
Yellow Medicine520
Pope480
Houston420
Aitkin401
Norman400
Kanabec361
Redwood360
Wilkin343
Hubbard330
Marshall290
Mahnomen271
Wadena270
Red Lake240
Big Stone220
Lake210
Stevens180
Clearwater140
Traverse110
Lac qui Parle70
Cook50
Kittson30
Lake of the Woods20

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 48781

Reported Deaths: 929
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk10309207
Woodbury371952
Black Hawk312766
Linn237588
Johnson209619
Dallas188535
Buena Vista179412
Scott171814
Dubuque167631
Marshall144426
Pottawattamie132526
Story116614
Wapello90033
Muscatine84748
Webster8017
Crawford7283
Sioux6343
Cerro Gordo62517
Warren5641
Tama55129
Jasper47826
Wright4721
Plymouth4629
Clinton3973
Dickinson3814
Louisa37814
Washington29810
Boone2583
Hamilton2461
Franklin24110
Bremer2267
Clarke2013
Carroll1921
Emmet1924
Clay1901
Shelby1841
Hardin1810
Des Moines1792
Marion1730
Poweshiek1598
Benton1561
Jackson1561
Allamakee1554
Floyd1552
Mahaska13917
Cedar1331
Guthrie1325
Jones1302
Buchanan1271
Henry1254
Hancock1222
Butler1212
Madison1212
Pocahontas1152
Lee1143
Lyon1132
Delaware1121
Humboldt1111
Cherokee1081
Harrison1071
Clayton1043
Taylor980
Iowa971
Winneshiek971
Page940
Kossuth910
Monona910
Mills890
Sac850
Jefferson840
Palo Alto840
Winnebago840
Calhoun832
Osceola830
Fayette820
Grundy791
Mitchell780
Union771
Cass741
Monroe737
Lucas684
Worth660
Montgomery594
Davis572
Chickasaw540
Appanoose493
Howard490
Fremont420
Greene410
Van Buren371
Keokuk351
Adair300
Ida290
Audubon281
Decatur230
Ringgold221
Wayne191
Adams160
Unassigned60
Rochester
Few Clouds
65° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 65°
Mason City
Clear
62° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 62°
Albert Lea
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 64°
Austin
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 64°
Charles City
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 64°
Storm chances End, Cooler & Less Humid Ahead
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Preparing for Minnesota's Primary

Image

American Legion starting '100 Miles of Hope' for veterans and children

Image

Diversity Council hosts 'Allies and Advocates'

Image

More construction in downtown Rochester starts

Image

NIACC baseball pushing athletes to the next level

Image

Sunday weather

Image

Weather

Image

Rochester Area Restore celebrates 6 years

Image

Saturday Weather

Image

Grief mask making workshop

Community Events