HAZARD – Several residents of Fort Branch attended Wednesday’s fiscal court meeting in an attempt to obtain answers as to when they can expect water service to be extended to their community.
The Herald first reported in May on the plight of Fort Branch residents as their only source of water comes underground wells and requires expensive filtration that may help some, but can not render the water fit to drink or cook with.
Tony Lewis, who lives on Fort Branch with his wife and children, appeared before the court this week where he noted many people in his area of the county have been waiting for water for well over a decade, all while communities around them gained access to potable water from the city of Hazard. Fort Branch was originally part of phase two of the South Perry Water Project, Lewis added, which is currently in its third phase.
“We’ve been promised for so long,” Lewis said. “I’d like to know why we got bypassed in the first place, why they didn’t do Fort Branch. They’re deep into phase three. I think we deserve to know. We were told the money is there, and then the money ain’t there.”
One source of funding for the South Perry project has been the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML), which funds projects in areas of the state impacted by coal mining prior to 1982. Fort Branch did not qualify for AML funding, though some of those projects in phase three did, according to Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble. When that funding became available, projects in phase three were begun, even though some areas included in the previous phase were not yet complete.
“We’re trying to put all the money we can get in the right place,” Noble said.
Sen. Brandon Smith, who along with state Rep. Fitz Steele attended Wednesday’s meeting to discuss Fort Branch, said the South Perry project has been a massive undertaking and consumed millions of dollars in coal severance and money from other sources. From his experience in the state House and now the Senate, South Perry has been a priority for every funding cycle since 2000, and he said more than $23 million has been spent installing waterlines in the south end of the county.
“There’s not another project, not another one, that this kind of money has been spent on in my entire district, in all the counties that I’ve got,” Smith said. “We’ve never once forgotten that you all don’t have water, and it’s been a priority.”
The total cost estimate for the Fort Branch project is just over $900,000, and Noble said $500,000 was allocated in the 2013-14 state budget. The project is currently prioritized as No. 4 on a list of 13 coal severance projects in Perry County, behind funding for the local drug court, road bonds, and the county 911 office. Additionally, applications were submitted for an Appalachian Regional Commission grant and a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and either one, if approved, would secure enough funding for Fort Branch when coupled with the coal severance allotment.
Lewis asked if anyone could supply him with an answer as to when Fort Branch’s 204 residents could reasonably expect to be able to sign up for water service, as the need is great for potable water in his community. In his own home he constantly filters what water he pumps from the ground, and said he purchases enough bottled water to drink and cook with to pay a significant water bill each month. And the poor water quality is also having effects on his neighbors.
“I have one neighbor who’s in his 80s with terminal cancer that don’t have one drop of water,” Lewis said. “Every drop of water, even to flush his commodes with or to do the dishes, is all packed to him from the neighbors’ houses.”
Time frames are uncertain, Noble replied, as he can’t say for sure when coal severance funds would be made available as the coal industry continues to sputter in Eastern Kentucky.
“When that (severance) will come in I can’t tell you because I don’t know how much the coal companies right now are producing, and how much is coming in,” Noble said.
In terms of the grants, however, officials expect to hear word on the CDBG by next month. But even if the grants fall through, Smith said there could be room to allocate funds in the state budget when the legislature convenes next month.
“We’re going back into the budget this year,” said Smith, who serves as Majority Whip in the Senate. “We’re not going to have much, but like I told you, we’re committed to finishing this project. We’re getting it one way or another.”
Once funding is secured and work can progress, officials say the entire project could be completed in an 18-month span. And for Lewis and several residents present on Wednesday, 18 months can’t come soon enough.
“We just need water,” Lewis said. “We just don’t want to be forgotten about.”