In January, some households in Martin County, Kentucky were without water for weeks. Residents are experiencing the latest in a long string of contamination and service problems punctuated by Massey Energy’s coal slurry spill in 2000. Now, the system is facing catastrophic failures…and residents might be forced to spend hundreds more on this shoddy and dangerous water service.
What’s Happening in Martin County?
Our new case study, The Water Crisis in Martin County, Kentucky tells the story of how coal industry power, disinvestment, mismanagement and corruption have led to this crisis. It also provides a warning against Trump’s infrastructure plan, which would leave more rural communities like Martin County waiting for Wall Street investment in their water systems that would likely never come. The case study reveals:
- The proposed 49.5% rate hike by the Public Services Commission shows that the biggest commercial users would still pay less per gallon than what households now pay for failing water service.
- Elaine Chao (then labor secretary and now one of Trump’s biggest infrastructure boosters as transportation secretary—and wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell) oversaw the investigation into the coal slurry spill in 2000 that precipitated many of the community’s water problems today. Massey Energy ended up paying only $5,600 in federal fines for the massive spill—amounting to less than 2 cents for every 1,000 gallons spilled.
- Distant, absentee owners like Norfolk Southern and Harvard University have controlled a huge amount of the land and mineral assets in Martin County, and many of them face no (or very low) taxes. This lack of fair taxation has contributed to the fiscal problems that have hurt the water system.
Harvard University: Complicit?
That’s right: Harvard University appears to own considerable land and mineral rights in the area. And it’s not paying its fair share in taxes off of this wealth, which is one of the reasons the Martin County Water District lacks the revenues that it needs to operate. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported, “the issue of land ownership is near the heart of most discussions about poverty” in the region and inadequate tax revenues from corporate and absentee owners have starved local governments of needed funds for services.
Our analysis shows that Harvard held more than 11,000 acres in Martin and Johnson counties endowed by wealthy donors. One of these donors, a descendant of Louis Agassiz, held some 12,500 acres in Martin County that appear to be associated with the university and there were about 40 natural gas well permits and at least 7 producing wells as of 2014 on the Agassiz land.
Harvard’s non-profit status shields the massive endowment from any taxes that might have helped shore up Martin County’s water system and other public services. So not only is Harvard not paying its fair share of its wealth in the area—that wealth appears to come in part from natural gas production, and possibly fracking.