The Water Crisis and Long Term Development

November 21, 2008
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Below is a letter that I wrote for The Mountain Eagle that was published on November 12th, 2008. After I wrote this State formally charged Childers Oil and a spokesperson for DOW said the water was “never dangerous.” While I don’t pretend to know the extent of danger, any time you are required to have a no-touch advisory for the public water supply a danger does exist and it shows how vulnerable our public water supplies are. You can react to this two ways either by saying ‘see, there’s nothing we can do, just stay away from the river’ or by saying ‘This shows that we need to be more cautious and more protective as we move forward in our development. The river is ours to use.’ I of course fall into the latter. In my opinion if we want to escape endemic poverty and live healthy, happy lives in the mountains that outlook is necessary.

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Everyone agrees that Letcher County’s water crisis was a horrible situation. However even beyond the massive recent problems – dismissed schools, closed businesses, health impacts, and other disruptions of daily life – this event has the risk of impairing Letcher County’s long-term development. Since its formation in 1997, the Letcher County Water & Sewer District has already added over a thousand dispersed customers and has been one of the fastest growing districts in the state. Yet still 59% of the county’s residents lack water service and 80% lack sewer service. The district is actively closing the gap and many of the delays are beyond its control, but there is clearly much work to be done.

The backbone of their promise to the people is to provide water that is not only plentiful but also clean. When new customers are added to the system they have to disconnect their well from their plumbing to prevent backflow in which untreated well water could enter the public system. For a homeowner to disconnect their plumbing from their private well, he or she must trust that the public supply is of better than their well. Last week those served by the City of Whitesburg’s water plant could not even mop their floors with the water from the tap. This crisis is not the fault of the Water and Sewer District, but it could end up endangering their credibility with current and potential customers.

Our public officials, regulatory agents, and courts must take this matter seriously if the public is to put faith in our public utilities. The responsible party should be held accountable not only for the loss of economic activity, missed school, and personal injury, but also should be responsible for a portion of the cost of extending public water services to currently unserved areas. This would lower the cost for citizens and repair the trust which has been damaged by this pollution of our North Fork of the Kentucky River.

The public should demand and should receive nothing less, but for this to happen citizens must be engaged in the process. I applaud the citizens that first noticed the smell and took the initiative to contact the authorities. We all should be aware of where our water comes from and help prevent risks. Because water moves across property lines, your neighbors’ actions can affect you. Water quality is everybody’s business.

As this crisis enters our collective memory and the court system, citizens must continue to protect our water resources and demand that polluters are held accountable. In the meantime though, we must keep an eye on our public officials and focus on sustainable, long-term development. It is clear that the county needs better infrastructure to build healthy lives and businesses, but miles of pipe are useless if people do not trust what flows in the pipe. Our officials need to make sure that people can trust what comes from their taps.

Posted by evan

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