FUSONIA — Studies have shown for years that drinking water is good for a person. But what if drinking your water meant drinking water you wouldn’t even put in your dog’s bowl?
This is what residents in a community in southern Perry County have had to contend with for the last three years.
“We desperately need water,” said Tony Lewis, a resident of Fort Branch and the former Perry County PRIDE coordinator.
Lewis, who suffers from asbestos-related health issues, lives with his wife and two children in a community he said will always be home to him no matter the water conditions. To try to help better his tap water as much as he can on his own, Lewis has had a filtration system installed in his house which must be changed at least every five days, which costs he and his family upwards of $60 a month just for filters, Lewis said.
“There are some people that can’t afford the filters; it’s expensive,” he said.
Lewis, as many Fort Branch residents, has lived on Fort Branch his entire life. The quality of the water, pumped from underground wells, has gotten progressively worse in the last three years, he said, and even with filtration systems sediment and sulfur cloud the water, making it look as though it has been dipped from a puddle rather than poured from a faucet.
“We have to buy every bottle of drinking water that we drink. There’s some people in the community that can’t afford to buy water,” he said.
Mike Lamz, a resident of Fort Branch who helps a number of his neighbors change their filters, said he can remember when the community had excellent water.
“I’ve only been back four years, I’ve been in Chicago for the last 10 years, but when I left water around here was good. Now, I’ve come back, since the boom of the mines and everything, and it’s been nasty,” Lamz said.
Lamz is forced, like many others in the community, to take his white work clothes to Hazard to be washed in city water so the sulfur in his water doesn’t turn them orange.
Lewis said it is impossible for anyone on the hollow to have white clothes if they are washing them at home.
“I wouldn’t know what it’d be like to have a white pair of underwear. I told my wife, I said, if we do get city water and we get it hooked up … the first thing I’m going to do is buy me about $100 worth of white underwear and T-shirts. I love them, but you can’t have them now,” he said.
Not only does the water stain clothes, but bathtubs, sinks and toilets are susceptible to the “orange ring” unless they are cleaned by a harsh cure-all.
“You have to clean that with SNOBOL, and within a week it’s orange again. Anywhere that water gets it leaves an orange mark,” Lewis said.
Lewis’s wife, Gemelia, wears gloves to clean with the agent because of the harsh chemicals it contains; her husband is forced leave the house on cleaning day due to the fumes.
Fort Branch residents have been in contact with local government leaders about their water for the past three years, but nothing has been done so far, Lewis said.
“We was promised water when the South Perry Water Project was in its infancy, 12 maybe 13 years ago,” Lewis said. The community has also been promised to be the next on the list for city water if funds become available.
Lewis, alongside other Fort Branch residents who were able to come, attended the Perry County Fiscal Court meeting in April to voice their concerns to the magistrates and Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble.
Shirley Lewis took the floor to talk about not only poor water conditions, but also a lack of water in the head of the hollow during the summer months of the year.
“This is the 21st century, and such a necessity as water, we should have it,” she addressed the magistrates. “I don’t see any reason in this day and this age, a needful thing as water, why people don’t have it.”
Noble explained that the funds originally budgeted for the South Perry Water Project to bring Hazard city water to all of the county, including Fort Branch, were depleted by unanticipated expenses.
“When we did, the project we were going to come out of Fourseam, across Slab Town and back up. Well, that’s when we passed to build the new road, Route 7, up through there, so they wouldn’t give us the permit to go through Slab Town and back out because they was going to build that new road,” Noble said.
Because of this set back, the project had to go across the railroad tracks and then across the river, which expended most of the funds set aside for the whole project and caused the court to shorten its scope. Other setbacks have occurred since then, including cuts in coal severance money and denials from Abandoned Mine Lands Case Studies for grants for those areas still without city water in South Perry.
Noble said about 90 percent of the county has city water access now, up from 55 percent when the project started. With just around 10 percent of the county to go, he said he has not given up.
“We’re going to keep working on it. What we’re going to try to do is have Abandoned Mines look at it again, and then have a back-up system with CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and coal severance. That’s all I can do,” he said. “I don’t blame them (the residents of Fort Branch) for being upset, but I explained to them that I was trying to get the money, that we’re working on it.”
Lewis and other community members have said they will continue coming to fiscal court meetings until something has been done about their water problem.
“We was promised water over three years ago, and, you know, everybody deserves clean drinking water. I don’t think that we should be different,” he said.