RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In rural eastern Kentucky, Martin County has gotten a bad name for its polluted drinking water. Now, local officials are trying to fix the system. But that has led to a new crisis with many unable to afford their water bills. From WMMT and the Ohio Valley ReSource, Sydney Boles reports.
SYDNEY BOLES, BYLINE: As often as he can, Jasper Davis (ph) pulls his car off this four-lane highway, where a trickle of water flows from the side of a mountain. Davis holds a plastic jug under the stream.
JASPER DAVIS: Tastes better than what the city water does, way better.
BOLES: Like most people around here, Davis has avoided drinking his tap water since a massive coal slurry spill in 2000 polluted the river that the county's water comes from.
DAVIS: And you just stick your jug under there and just catch the water one jug at a time.
BOLES: Nineteen years later, local officials say the tap water is safe to drink. But the water system remains in crisis. There can be days long outages, cloudy water, boil water advisories. Local officials are trying to fix all that, but they need more money. Water rates went up by 41% last year alone. That's tough for Davis, who supports five people on less than $15,000 a year. Davis guesses dozens of families come to the spring because, like him, they can't afford their water bill.
DAVIS: Water rates so high, they just come out here to get the spring water because it's safer to drink and cook in.
BOLES: The Martin County water board is stockpiling bottled water for the most needy, but it faces some major challenges. As the coal industry contracts, city tax revenues and some coal country communities are struggling to provide basic services.
ANDREW MELNYKOVYCH: The only way you can fix infrastructure without affecting rates is if somebody gives you the money to do it.
BOLES: That's Andrew Melnykovych, the spokesperson for the Public Service Commission, which regulates water systems in Kentucky. Civil engineers estimate Kentucky's drinking water infrastructure needs an investment of more than $8 billion.
MELNYKOVYCH: Absent some dramatic change at both the state and the federal level, that grant money is just not out there in the kind of quantities needed to address all of the water infrastructure needs in Kentucky.
BOLES: Another challenge here - the population is shrinking, meaning a smaller group of people have to shoulder the system's fixed costs. Colette Easter is with the American Society of Civil Engineers. She says in many places around the country, rural water systems are especially vulnerable.
COLETTE EASTER: Those communities that have a dwindling population have a even larger strain because they don't have the ratepayers to pay for a system that was designed for a lot more use.
BOLES: After we fill up at the stream, I follow Jasper Davis home. And he shows me the large plastic barrel where he collects rainwater for flushing the toilet.
DAVIS: If we got clean enough rain, it'll rain over. But here lately, ain't had no rain.
BOLES: At the bottom is just dirt and muck. Inside Davis' trailer, I meet his girlfriend, Shelby Cornette (ph). She says even if they keep their water bill low, using the tap only for showering, the household might have just $20 left for additional expenses.
SHELBY CORNETTE: You know, you got to decide, well, let's pay this water or we're not going to eat.
BOLES: There may be more hard choices to come. Regulators say, to address its water crisis, Martin County must hire a professional outside manager. That will probably mean even higher water bills.
For NPR News, I'm Sydney Boles in Martin County, Ky.
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