Environment

Kentucky is ranked near the top of a list no one wants to be on: the states with the highest number of people affected by health-based violations of federal drinking water laws.

A new report released Tuesday from the Natural Resources Defense Council says only four states have more people potentially affected by these violations than Kentucky. It estimates the drinking water systems serving more than 1.5 million people in the commonwealth ran afoul of federal health standards protecting people from disinfection byproducts, coliform bacteria, pathogens, nitrates, nitrites, lead and copper.

NRDC health program director and report co-author Erik Olson characterized the report’s findings as indicative of a national health crisis.

“What our review of EPA data found is that nearly 77 million Americans are served by community water systems that have violations,” he said. “That represents about one in four Americans.”

In a statement sent Tuesday evening, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet disagreed with the non-profit’s characterization of drinking water violations in the commonwealth.

Much of the conversation about safe drinking water since 2015 has focused on lead, after the discovery of severe lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. But there are numerous other contaminants regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

One of the biggest sources of violations in Kentucky was the Combined Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts rule, which establishes health standards for water systems that add chemicals like chlorine to their water. While there’s a clear health benefit to using chemicals to disinfect water before drinking, if the disinfectant isn’t managed properly it can react with organic elements in the water to create byproducts that can harm human health.

The NRDC’s data came from the Environmental Protection Agency. But according to a report posted on the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s website, if anything, the environmental group’s estimate of violations is lower than the actual figures.

According to Kentucky’s data, there were nearly a thousand violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015. Only 142 were listed as resolved — a rate of about 14 percent. The NRDC notes this lack of enforcement is a nationwide trend.

An online map on the group’s website lists water system-level data of violations. The Louisville Water Company was not listed as having any federal health-based violations in 2015, but many other systems around Kentucky had at least one. These include Kentucky-American Water Company, Hardin County Water District #2, Warren County Water District, Paducah Water Works, Frankfort Plant Board and Ashland Water Works.

But these larger systems only account for a handful of the violations in the NRDC report. Many of the violations were noted at small water systems in rural parts of the state.

NRDC senior attorney Mae Wu said this is a trend across the country. She noted that drinking water systems that serve fewer than 500 people accounted for almost 70 percent of all drinking water violations in 2015, and more than half of all health-based violations.

“Maybe the system is unable or unwilling to charge their customers for the full cost of providing safe drinking water,” she said. “Or the system might be managed by someone who isn’t a professional water operator or a full-time manager. Or maybe it’s somebody who doesn’t necessarily have all of the technical knowledge needed to handle running all the aspects of a water system.”

Wu said a major help to rural water systems is a $500 million program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The money is earmarked solely for grants and loans for infrastructure improvements for water systems in rural communities. But the program was eliminated in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, making its future uncertain.

In an emailed statement, Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura wrote that the safety of drinking water in the commonwealth is a top priority for regulators. He said the NRDC report was not based in fact.

“NRDC’s characterization of public drinking water is irresponsible and does not promote meaningful dialogue regarding the important concerns of safe drinking water and drinking water infrastructure investment,” Mura wrote.

This story has been updated.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.