20 Feb

“On Wednesday October 11, 2000, the coal slurry impoundment owned and operated by MCCC [Martin County Coal Company] had a sudden breach and millions [approximately 300 million] of gallons of Waste Materials, including, coal fine refuse slurry, and sediments spilled from a point source into the waters of the United States.” For those who do not remember this catastrophic event, it would be beneficial to read the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consent order between MCCC and the EPA which was effective on March 9, 2001.

Sadly, twenty years later, and notwithstanding the order of consent, the people of Martin County have yet to receive the relief contemplated under the terms of the order, an order intended to protect the health, welfare, and environment of the people impacted by this disaster. More importantly, the consent order was calculated to ensure that the people of Martin County would have safe drinking water, not water which to this day remains contaminated.

What is extremely important to remember is the Environmental Protection Agency was the representative of the people, the people of Martin County, people without the wherewithal to fight against a Goliath of a coal company. What is sad is that the order of consent in the Martin County Coal Company is not unlike most consent orders executed by government agencies, that is, once the ink is dry on the consent order, once the document is filed in the agency record, and once the catastrophe no longer finds itself in the headlines, the documents simply collect dust and are relegated to the archives of the agency.

Interestingly, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March of 1989, a disaster which involved eleven million gallons of crude oil which spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska, pales in comparison to the 300-million-gallon slurry spill from the Martin County Coal Company on October 11, 2000. And even more importantly, while the amount of money the Martin County Coal Company was said to have paid to settle the case was $50 million dollars, it cost Exxon approximately $3.8 billion to restore the habitat and pay personal damages for the disaster which it caused.

For most people, other than the people of Martin County who still find themselves fighting for a glass of clean drinking water, the importance of this document is really of no significance. However, after Kentucky’s Public Utility Commission decision this week, a decision which would again raise the water rates on the people of Martin County, this document should be dusted off and revisited with the Environment Protection Agency. Obviously, the rate increase is intended to eventually upgrade the water treatment facilities in Martin County to provide clean and safe drinking water. The rhetorical question which begs an answer is who should be responsible to pay for the upgrades to the water treatment facilities, the people of Martin County, or those responsible for the contaminated water in the first place.

Of course, if you live in Martin County and have suffered the consequences of a disaster which was caused by the Martin County Coal Company, you are likely asking the rhetorical question of how much longer will it take to finally provide safe drinking water, and how many more rate increases will they have to suffer before they can turn on their faucets and fill a glass with safe, uncontaminated drinking water?

There is an old saying from the French Revolution, a saying which was attributed to Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, when she was told that the starving peasant subjects did not have bread to eat to which she responded, “Let them eat cake.” The same could be said of the members of Kentucky’s Public Service Commission when they heard that after more than twenty years the people of Martin County still did not have clean drinking water.

Of course, after responding with “raise their rates,” they could almost be heard to have whispered, “Let them eat cake,” but do not provide them with a glass of clean drinking water to wash it down with unless they pay more, with money most people of Martin County do not have, to pay for a disaster which they were not responsible for in the first place.

So, why look to the consent order, an order which was signed on March 9, 2001, a document which was long ago placed in the archives of the Environmental Protection Agency? The reason to look to the consent order is for a single paragraph which is set forth under a section entitled “Additional Actions.” As with most legal documents, it is unclear when or if this section remains viable, however, the preamble to this single paragraph reads “EPA may determine that additional actions not included in an approved plan are necessary to protect public health, welfare, or the environment.” What could be more important to protect public health, welfare, or the environment than to provide safe drinking water to the people of Martin County.

In the end, regardless of who should pay for any upgrades for the water treatment facilities in Martin County, one thing is certain, it should not be the people of Martin County who are the real victims of a broken government, a government which obviously does not care for a handful of people in rural Kentucky who only have a small voice, and even worse, a handful of people who twenty years later are still fighting for a glass of clean drinking water. To borrow from the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes, one for peace and one for science.”

So, as I often do, I would invite each of you to join me on my imaginary mountaintop, this time a mountaintop in Martin County, and join me along with the people of Martin County, and help them shout loudly so their voices will be heard in Frankfort and in Washington D.C., that the time has come to provide a solution, that the time has come to provide all of the people of Martin County with a glass of clean drinking water.

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