Unsafe Water: Basic Infrastructure Needs for a New Economy

How do you build a new economy when you lack basic infrastructure?

During its run in Martin County, Kentucky, the coal industry extracted billions of dollars in coal. Yet, the county invested very little in basic infrastructure needs. The county’s drinking water system is near collapse.

For the past fifteen years, the Martin County Water District has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s health standards. The system loses 60-65% of its water through breaks in the lines. The water coming out of the taps in the county is sometimes brown or black with pollution. In a county where the poverty rate is nearly 40%, nearly everyone buys bottled water. The residents know the water is not safe to drink.

The state of Kentucky has done very little to protect the county’s residents. In the seventeen years since the Martin County coal slurry spill, the state agencies have brought six enforcement actions against the water district. Each time the water district promises to come into compliance. It has not. The system has gotten worse each year.

In May 2017, a group of residents formed the Martin County Concerned Citizens. The group is working to convince state regulators and Kentucky’s courts that they will not back down until every resident of Martin County has safe, affordable water.

This presentation will explore the process and the advantages of using community organizing and community lawyering approaches to tackle nearly intractable problems like a failed water infrastructure.