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1,800 homes still lack public water in Letcher County

New federal funds may help
More water lines needed

Kentucky will get $112,643,000 for clean drinking water projects for next year through the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Improvement Act passed in November.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allocate that amount through the State Revolving Fund, which is administered by the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. From there the money will go to local communities.

The money could be especially beneficial here, since it is to be targeted at traditionally underserved communities, and about half of the money will be distributed as grants – free money that communities will not have to repay – or principal forgiveness loans, through which part of the amount borrowed will be forgiven.

Even principal forgiveness loans can be difficult for poor communities. Letcher County Water and Sewer District was offered a $3,045,000 loan for which $1 million would be forgiven before the new pot of money became available, but turned it down because of the amount water rates would have to be raised to repay the remainder of the loan, water company manager Mark Lewis said.

That project would be on KY 510 and in the Gordon area of Letcher County. Lewis said the district is seeking money from the Abandoned Mine Lands Program now. That money would not have to be paid back, and the county has successfully received money from AML many times before.

“I’ve been here since 2011 and they did 32 projects in a row,” he said.

The Infrastructure Act added $11.3 billion to the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to be split among coal-producing states.

“With President Biden’s leadership and congressional action, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has created a historic opportunity to correct longstanding environmental and economic injustices across America,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “As leaders, we must seize this moment. Billions of dollars are about to start flowing to states and it is critical that EPA partners with states, tribes, and territories to ensure the benefits of these investments are delivered in the most equitable way.”

Regan encouraged states to maximize the impact of the money to “address disproportionate environmental burdens in historically underserved communities across the country.”

Lewis said the state currently has a $49 million unserved customer fund that part of the new money could be added to, and that the district hopes to tap into for projects.

“As far as I know, Letcher County has the biggest unserved population in the state,” Lewis said. “No one has been able to confirm that for me, but that is what I’ve been told.”

There are still around 1,800 households in the county that do not have public drinking water.

The county’s top priority for grant funding is a water treatment plant proposed to be built at the confluence of Linefork and the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

Lewis said that plant is important because the county gets 80 to 85 percent of its drinking water from Knott County, where the rate for the county recently increased from $3 to $3.27 per 1,000 gallons.

“It was a big legal battle to get it down to $3.27, and there’s no guarantee they won’t try to raise it again,” he said.

The treatment plant would make the county more self-sufficient and allow it to have more control over water rates, but at an estimated cost of $8 million, customers can’t afford to pay the rates required to pay back loans.

“We’ll have to get some pretty substantial grants to make it feasible,” he said.

In addition to the $112 million allocated for 2022, Kentucky will receive allocations for each of the next five years.

The Infrastructure Act provides $50 billion across the nation over five years. The EPA will allocate $7.4 billion to states, tribes and territories for 2022.

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