U.S. Water News Online
HARLAN, Ky. -- With the stench and the gurgling, it's not
that difficult to find a pipe belching human waste onto the river
outside this coal town in southeastern Kentucky.
Each time a commode flushes in one of about 40 homes in the
Sunshine community, another wave of feces and soggy toilet paper
flows into the upper reaches of the Cumberland River.
Four years after state officials began a crackdown on so-called
straight pipes, local leaders say the problem remains pervasive
across eastern Kentucky.
"We have some of the most beautiful streams in the world," said
Mayor Danny Howard. "If only we could clean these sewers up and
convince people not to put this stuff in the river."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the cost of
eliminating straight pipes in eastern Kentucky at $300 million. Add
to that the problem of failing septic systems and the cost reaches $1
The federal agency said the problem in eastern Kentucky presents
an environmental crisis, and that some Kentucky residents are living
under the same unsanitary conditions as people in developing
So far, the federal government has spent $106 million in eastern
Kentucky to stop the flow of human waste directly into streams. Yet
levels of fecal bacteria remains so high that residents are advised
not to swim in portions of several rivers.
Local residents are all too familiar with the problem, said Joan
Robinett of Harlan, an environmental activist who has pushed to stop
pollution in the upper Cumberland. The stream, once popular for
swimming, is now off limits to local children. No rope swings hanging
from trees. No worn paths leading to the shaded pools.
"The children are told to stay away," Robinett said. "Just wading
in that water can be a problem if you have any kind of cut or scratch
or open wound. It's not healthy."
Richard Thomas, executive director of the government-sponsored
environmental group PRIDE, said he looks forward to the day the
swimming bans can be lifted.
"We have made a great deal of progress, but there's still a lot of
work to be done," he said. "We have got to improve the water quality
of southern and eastern Kentucky. We've got to get rid of the human
Plans are now being drawn to replace the Sunshine straight pipe
with a connection to the Harlan sewage treatment plant, a $1.9
million project funded largely by PRIDE, which funnels federal funds
into sewage projects in the region.
Within three years, Thomas said 25,200 homes in the region will
have been added to municipal sewer systems or will have been hooked
into new septic systems paid for through PRIDE. In addition, he said,
6,200 homes that previously were flushing waste directly into streams
have received new septic systems at a cost of $19 million.
"There is nothing short of a historic transformation taking place
in southern and eastern Kentucky," said U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers,
R-Somerset, co-founder of the PRIDE group.
"Thousands of volunteers and community leaders are turning back
decades of pollution and a new generation is learning to avoid the
mistakes of the past."
Rogers said PRIDE is not only cleaning up the environment but also
laying the foundation for new economic development opportunities and
creating a better standard of living for local residents.
Under PRIDE's funding structure, people deemed financially able to
pay for installation of septic systems or for hookups to municipal
sewage treatment systems have to cover the cost themselves. Low
income residents who can't afford the cost can apply for grants.
The goal is to grow the tourism industry in economically depressed
eastern Kentucky. Thomas said that can't happen if the streams and
lakes are so polluted that people are advised to stay out of them.
The University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Division of Water plan
to take a fresh look this summer at the upper Cumberland River to try
to gauge whether work completed thus far has had a measurable effect,
and whether the swimming bans can be lifted.
"We know that there's been a lot of work in the area, and it's our
hope that this will have resulted in water quality improvements,"
said Julie Smoak, an environmental scientist for the Division of
Water. "We feel like it's a good time to stop, take a deep breath and
do the assessment so we can further direct our efforts."
The swimming bans are in place for numerous streams, including the
upper reaches of the Cumberland, Kentucky and Licking rivers. Thomas
said it's important to note that portions of those streams and many
others are safe for swimming.
"I think sometimes we paint a much darker picture than actually
exists," Thomas said. "Not every stream is polluted. Not every lake
is polluted. But we've got to make them all OK."
That, he said, can best be done by changing the mind-set in the
region that polluting streams is normal. That's being done through
educational programs in schools throughout the region.
"Our generation has done a pretty good job of polluting the
environment," Thomas said. "We have to break the cycle of pollution.
We're trying to teach the young kids why we shouldn't pollute."
When he speaks to audiences in eastern Kentucky, Thomas said he
tries to make clear the impact of straight pipes on the environment.
"I try to get as graphic as possible without being rude and crude
about it," he said. "Imagine flushing your toilet. What runs out the
bottom of your commode is what runs out into the stream. Most people
get the picture pretty quick."
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