ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
All this week, we've been talking about drinking water - who has it, who doesn't and the forces that separate the haves from the have-nots. We've been all over the world, and today we're going to look at America's water crisis. The U.S. water infrastructure is in major need of an upgrade. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. would need to spend nearly $400 billion to bring systems up to date. That's a burden that would fall on ratepayers, average citizens who often don't have the extra money. This is a reality that Martin County, Ky., knows too well. People there have been fighting to get clean drinking water for years, as NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports.
ALEIGHA SLOAN: (Singing) Baby, where you been? It's half past 10. Oh, look; you're late again. Baby...
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: An enthusiastic greeting from 17-year-old Aleigha Sloan standing on her family's front porch.
SLOAN: Welcome to our humble abode.
LONSDORF: She's lived in Huntleyville, Ky., her whole life, and she's never once taken a glass, filled it with water from her tap and drank it.
SLOAN: The connotation with that to me is absolutely dangerous.
LONSDORF: She makes a face and wrinkles her nose at the thought.
SLOAN: Like, you don't touch that tap water unless absolutely necessary. You know, like, showers and things, you have to do what you have to do. But other than that, no, we don't. I don't know anybody that does.
LONSDORF: Her family's home is a cozy, two-story house tucked back along winding rural roads near the West Virginia border. Aleigha's mom, BarbiAnn Maynard, is in the kitchen emptying out a five-gallon jug. She uses the jug to fetch cooking water from a local spring.
BARBIANN MAYNARD: You take it for granted until you don't have it. And I think that's the attitude of a lot of people right now. But they don't understand how close they are to it happening to them.
LONSDORF: There are bottles and jugs all over the place to make sure the family of five has enough water for daily life.
MAYNARD: Bottled water for drinking. This is what we cook with.
LONSDORF: Down the hall, in the bathroom.
MAYNARD: This is our bottled water for brushing our teeth.
LONSDORF: Outside on the porch.
MAYNARD: Water jug.
LONSDORF: In the back of a van.
MAYNARD: Twelve, 15, 18, 22 gallons of water. We go through probably $30 a week just in the little individual bottles.
LONSDORF: That's on top of the regular water bill they pay, a bill for water Maynard and her family don't drink.
MAYNARD: I mean, it's anything other than normal. This is not normal. But it's our normal.
LONSDORF: And this is normal for many of the county's nearly 12,000 residents. People say their tap water sometimes comes out brown or milky or smells bad, and other times there's no water at all.
Martin County's water issues are multilayered, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly when they started. But one major event was a giant coal sludge spill back in 2000. It dumped over 300 million gallons of toxic waste with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic right into the county's water source. Thick, black sludge ran downstream for miles. Lawns were covered. Houses were destroyed. The trauma of that spill runs deep. And even 17 years later, residents still don't trust the water. The other problem is crumbling infrastructure. The pipes that carry water throughout the county leak a lot. Treated water gets out, and groundwater gets in.
GAIL BRION: When clean water leaves the plant and God knows what is sucked in from the groundwater around it from an area that has how many hundreds of years of mining and other industrial activities - the treatment plant operators can't control the quality of the water in the pipes if they cannot keep the pipes intact.
LONSDORF: Gail Brion specializes in water infrastructure at the University of Kentucky. She says this is the key to a lot of Martin County's water issues. Last year alone, the utility that manages the water, the Martin County Water District, issued 29 boil water advisories all due to broken lines. This, Brion says, is what happens when you don't properly invest in what she calls the hidden infrastructure, the pipes and treatment facilities and pumps that aren't as noticeable as bridges and roads. And she stresses it's a far bigger problem than just this county.
BRION: At some point, there has to become a public will that becomes a political will because the solution that we've chosen right now, which is to ignore the problem, isn't working.
MICKEY MCCOY: (Unintelligible).
NINA MCCOY: Mostly local artwork.
LONSDORF: There is a public well here in Martin County. Nina McCoy is one of the strongest voices behind it. She and her husband, Mickey, run a house-turned-diner in the small town of Inez. It's called Metrobilly's.
M. MCCOY: So Metrobilly's is a sometimes sandwich joint for artists and activists and their disenfranchised soulmates in waiting. That's what it is (laughter). So welcome.
LONSDORF: The McCoys only use bottled water to make coffee and soup and other diner fare. Nina first got worried about the water after that 2000 sludge spill.
N. MCCOY: Then I realized that, oh, this is a deep problem.
LONSDORF: And she's stayed on it ever since. She's gone to every public meeting she can, and she travels to other counties to talk about water.
N. MCCOY: It is a problem throughout the nation. Water is a problem. And until we address it as a very important national issue, then every little town is just going to put out their little fire. There's not - we're all just going to burn down (laughter) one by one, yeah.
LONSDORF: Reporting by the local paper here first got the state to open an investigation into the Martin County Water District in 2002. There have been several audits and investigations since, all with recommendations for ways to correct the system, recommendations that were mostly not implemented. There's another investigation going on right now, and Nina goes to every meeting. This time around, a lawyer has stepped in to represent the citizens pro bono. But still, Nina's exhausted.
N. MCCOY: Here we are again. We're in another fight. I still wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats of, like, I can't get it wrong; I can't mess up this time. I mean, we've fought this so long that it almost seems hopeless.
LONSDORF: There is change happening in the county. Most of the Martin County Water District board resigned at the beginning of the year, so there's new leadership in charge. But again, it all comes down to money in one of the poorest counties in the country.
JIMMY KERR: If we don't get our finances in order, we will never be able to give the people of Martin County the water that they want. It's just not going to happen.
LONSDORF: Jimmy Kerr is the new treasurer on the board. He says it's simple math. The district is a million dollars in debt. They need millions of dollars to upgrade the system. There isn't enough grant money to go around, so they need to raise rates. They're asking for a nearly 50 percent increase.
KERR: The rate increase is not popular. I get it. I know who I'm hurting. But there's nobody coming in here on a white horse to save us. It's not happening. The people of this county did not create this mess, but we're the ones who are going to have to fix it.
LONSDORF: That's one thing everyone seems to agree on. The people of Martin County are going to have to dig in and keep working to fix the water problems. BarbiAnn Maynard is doing just that. She's even running for local government. When I ask her why she doesn't just move, we hop in her car. She drives about 30 minutes down the road past a coal mine and up a dirt pathway.
MAYNARD: Let's walk out there. I can pull right up close to it. I'll show you.
LONSDORF: We park next to a wooded patch on a sloping hillside.
MAYNARD: When I was born in the hospital, they brought me up this hollar where our family cemetery is.
LONSDORF: Her family cemetery. There's a painted angel statue standing at the entrance.
MAYNARD: And this right here is my grandfather and my grandmother. These are my two cousins.
LONSDORF: The low afternoon light streams in through the trees. There are dozens of headstones adorned with flowers and ribbons.
MAYNARD: And back here is my mommy. And hers is the prettiest, most fancy one here. And I want to be down there by that rock. Daddy will be right there. My kids will be right there. There's no price tag you can put on that. I'm not going to let them run me off. So I'm standing my ground.
LONSDORF: Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, in Martin County, Ky.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF WATERS' "LA SEMANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.