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Story highlights

Martin County citizens say their water is undrinkable

As infrastructure ages, experts say, keeping water clean becomes increasingly challenging

(CNN) —  

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.