Sometimes, they get milky water, or water that looks more like beer, according to a Los Angeles Times report. And sometimes, residents of this county located in far eastern Kentucky get nothing at all.
Such is the problem for millions of Americans who lack access to potable water that passes federal safety standards. According to a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than 20 million residents got their water from systems that didn’t meet quality levels in 2015. Contaminants found in the water included lead, arsenic and fecal matter, the study also said.
“We felt that in the aftermath of the Flint lead crisis, there was an urgent need to assess the current state of drinking water in the U.S.,” University of California-Irvine urban planner Maura Allaire, who led the study, told USA Today.
The study, which examined 17,900 U.S. water systems from 1982 to 2015, found most of the nation’s drinking water is clean, but many of the areas that had poor water quality readings were repeated violators of federal health standards. This was especially true in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Idaho, where low-income, rural areas saw the most violations.
“Many of these smaller utilities have just a handful of people who are charged with managing the entire system,” Manuel P. Teodoro, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, told the New York Times.
The study’s findings varied from year to year; in some years, the data showed as many as 45 million people were exposed to unsafe drinking water. Publicly owned utilities had more violations than privately owned ones, and smaller water systems had more problems, the study also concluded.
In Martin County, tainted water has become such a consistent, rampant problem that water bills often include warnings about the long-term health dangers from disinfectant byproducts used to remove toxins from the drinking water, the L.A. Times reported. Some residents have resorted to boiling rainwater so they can bathe and melting snow so they can flush their toilets.
Many residents fear the smelly, discolored water coming from the taps is also a risk to their health, even as Martin County water officials claim the water is safe.
This is life in Coal Country, where leaky, old pipes are in desperate need of replacement. And with the new $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan proposed by the Trump administration, many residents wonder how the government can spend money repaving roads when the water coming out of their faucets is dangerous to drink.
“I’ve been breaking out when I get into the shower,” wrote another resident, Amy Sparks. “My scalp burns like it’s on fire and I get red spots all over me. I noticed the water smelt like pure bleach.”
Even when county officials finally announced on Jan. 26 that they were lifting a boil-water advisory, many were skeptical.
“We cannot use the water because it’s killing us,” said BarbiAnn Maynard, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom in Huntleyville, who blames county water for her mom’s death 10 years ago from cancer.
Martin County Water District has violated the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water standards 36 times since 2012 — most often for excessive levels of disinfection byproducts, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which are formed when a disinfectant, such as chlorine, reacts with organic compounds in the water.
“People see bridges, but water pipes are hidden underground and nobody sees them,” Gail Brion, a professor of environmental engineering and health at the University of Kentucky, told the L.A. Times. “There’s no question that people need to have safe, clean water. The issue is, who’s going to pay for it?”
Some good news is on the horizon for residents of Martin County: Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced a $3.4 million aid package for the Martin County Water District.
In a statement to LEX 18, the governor said, “Our team, including the Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Department of Local Government, worked closely with Congressman Rogers to craft a solution that addresses the water supply issues in Martin County,” bringing hope to a dire situation in at least one of the water-deprived rural areas across America.