A sizable portion of Blackey’s 123 residents turned out for a called meeting of the Board of Directors of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, and they didn’t attend to wish the board a merry Christmas.
The Blackey residents ranged from curious to angry, but the main topics of concern were the recent water emergency which caused many in Blackey to be without water for up to four days, and why the Blackey Water Plant was not in operation.
Most of the people who spoke at the meeting said they were not aware that the plant was no longer producing water, and a number of them asked why. Water Superintendent Tim Reed, who had worked at the Blackey Plant as an operator before it was first transferred to the Letcher County Fiscal Court and then to the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, explained that the plant has not been shut down, but is off -line for several reasons. Plant operator Richard Harr has been off work for several months due to a broken foot, and there are several maintenance and computer software issues yet to be resolved.
The Blackey Plant has been discussed at several meetings of the board, but no official announcement of either shutting the plant down or taking it off -line have been made. However, the board heard several reports concerning maintenance issues and the exorbitant costs of running the plant earlier in the year. In February, Reed told the board the Blackey Plant was designed to produce 100,000 gallons of treated water per eight-hour shift, yet it was only able to produce 65,762 gallons per eight-hour shift due to maintenance and software issues. In April, the board authorized the purchase of a new computer for the plant, but no announcement was made that the plant had been taken off -line.
Reed also told the crowd that the cost of producing water at the Blackey Plant was more than double the cost of purchasing water from the City of Whitesburg or from the Knott County Water District through the newly completed Knott County Interconnect, which will bring treated water from the Knott County Water District and should alleviate Letcher County’s capacity issues. Reed said the county now pays $3 per 1,000 gallons from Knott County and $2.95 per 1,000 from Whitesburg while the cost of producing water at the Blackey Plant is $6.30 per1,000 gallons.
Reed then gave a timeline of the water shortage and the events that caused it. The initial problem came from a water leak in a city line in Whitesburg which drained the city’s tanks and prevented any water from going into the tanks that serve county customers, and was reported in the December 22 edition of The Mountain Eagle. Reed said the county tanks started getting low on Wednesday and that by 11:30 a.m. on Friday December 17, he had been told to shut down, but was told service would be restored by 8 p.m. at the latest. He said the county’s tanks were empty by then and he contacted Judge/Executive Jim Ward who declared a state of emergency and contacted CSX Railroad and the Kentucky Department of Water, which gave the District permission to bore under CSX rail tracks to complete the connection with the Knott County Interconnect.
Joe Burns of Kentucky Rural Water, who is working with the district to resolve several issues, said that since the railroad bore had been done in emergency conditions, there had been no time to test the newly installed lines on either side of the connection and leaks were found which had to be fixed before the lines could be put into service. He said Judge Ward had county equipment brought in and the City of Whitesburg sent equipment as well to get the leaks repaired and the lines were ready to carry water by 8:30 p.m. on Saturday. Burns complimented the district staff , saying they did a great job and worked almost constantly throughout the emergency.
Blackey resident Jim Flynn, a former member of both the district’s Board of Directors and the Blackey City Council, asked how much water had been available to Blackey by Thursday and Reed said the tank serving Blackey was the last to run dry. Burns said he and Reed are working on a chain of events to use to construct an emergency response plan for any future emergencies.
Blackey resident Betty Watts asked why Whitesburg still had water when Blackey had none, and Burns explained that the city had some water in its tanks but the tanks were so low that it couldn’t transfer water into lines that serve the county tank. The City of Whitesburg sells treated water to the district but its first responsibility is to the taxpayers of Whitesburg. At the December 14 meeting of the Whitesburg City Council, Veolia District Manager Todd Adams said he had been told specifically by the Kentucky Division of Water to do nothing to put the City of Whitesburg and areas protected by the Whitesburg Volunteer Fire Department at risk of not having enough line pressure to get ample water to fire hydrants to fight fires. Watts then asked if the emergency had been caused by poor maintenance. Watts is a former member of the Blackey City Council, but did not serve on the council in March of 2005 when the Blackey Plant was transferred to the county.
The Letcher County Fiscal Court took control of the Blackey Water Plant at the request of the Blackey City Council in 2005. The action came as the result of a number of failures by the mayor and council that were brought to light in an audit conducted by Hazard accountant Chris Gooch. In the audit, Gooch found that the city had failed to pay federal income taxes on Richard Harr, as well as failing to pay a school surcharge fee that goes to the Letcher County Board of Education. Both had gone unpaid and the funds were put into the operation of the water plant. Gooch reported that the city owed the Board of Education approximately $16,812 as of June 30, 2004.
The court accepted control from the Blackey City Council after a resolution was filed that authorized the Letcher County Water and Sewer District to take over operation of the Blackey Water plant “as soon as possible.” The resolution stated that “Due to the constant drain on City of Blackey resources, the City will turn the Water Plant over to Letcher County Water and Sewer District as soon as possible.” The resolution, which was passed at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Blackey City Council on November 7, 2005, authorized the mayor to negotiate the transaction. It was signed by Mayor Cathy Back and Richard Harr, City Clerk. At that time, Harr served as Blackey City Clerk as well as manager of the Blackey Water Plant.
Prior to the November 11, 2005 “premeeting” held for the purpose of acquiring the plant before the regular meeting was convened, then Letcher County Judge/ Executive Carroll Smith told The Mountain Eagle that although the county would have to assume a debt to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency of nearly $500,000, he did not expect to assume the liability to the IRS or to the Board of Education.
Reed said the problems had not been caused by maintenance or by any other failings on the part of the district. The cause for the water outage came from the water leak in the City of Whitesburg and the unusually long time it took to locate the leak. Burns said he had worked with Todd Adams of Veolia and Whitesburg water workers and had finally located the leak by 2 p.m. on Saturday. Burns said that after that, it had taken time to fill the tanks to the level where transfer valves would allow water to flow into lines that ran into county tanks. Watts pressed the maintenance question but Burns replied, “Leaks happen,” and said Whitesburg had experienced three more line breaks due to the cold weather after the 250 gallon-per-minute leak that affected the county’s tank was repaired.
Betty Watts then asked if the district had a plan in place for water emergencies and Burns said that most planning on the county level is usually done in the event of a natural disaster but added that he and Reed are developing a plan. Water board member Bernard Watts said that as a citizen of the county, he would like to know everything that had happened during the emergency and addressed Betty Watts’s complaint that other areas had water before Blackey as well as the Blackey Plant issue.
“It’s our responsibility to look after the entire county, every citizen,” said Bernard Watts. “I won’t support (paying) $6 per 1,000 when we can get it for $3 (per 1,000 gallons). That’s a money issue. We have to make every dollar count.”
Blackey resident Frank Campbell asked Reed why county water customers weren’t notified that water levels were getting low in time to prepare for the possibility of being without water. Reed asked him what he would have done and Campbell laughed and said he would have filled the bathtub up before saying that no one had known they should slow water consumption to conserve. Reed said the reason he hadn’t notified customers prior to Judge Ward’s declaration of an emergency was that he had been told the situation would be taken care of soon.
Burns also pointed out that the district was able to draw 1.6 million gallons of water from the Knott County Interconnect in about the same time it would have taken to get the Blackey Plant back into production, and while the Blackey Plant might have produced enough water to serve Blackey, it still couldn’t have served the needs of the rest of the county’s water customers. He added that if the same series of events involving Whitesburg’s inability to serve the county had happened three weeks later, nobody would have been affected and nobody would have even noticed that anything was wrong due to the district’s ability to draw water from Knott County.
Reed and Burns also addressed questions as to the cost of the water bought from Knott County and the possibility that Letcher County could be cut off the Knott County supply. Burns and Judge Ward both assured people that while the Knott County Water District is the agency that actually oversees sales of water to Letcher County as well as Vicco, Perry County, and Hindman, the project to construct the water plant had been funded as a regional project and is obligated to serve Letcher County as well as the others. Burns said the project is also controlled by the Public Service Commission and overseen by federal and state agencies so Letcher County’s water source is safe.
After nearly two hours of discussion, Board Chairman Phillip “Pee Wee” Back closed the commentary period, saying the board had other business it had to take care of that evening as well. Back assured the gathering that the county now has a safe and reliable source of water and that in a couple of weeks the Knott County Interconnect Project will be entirely finished. Jamie Noe of Bell Engineering also said that another line connecting Letcher County with the Knott County Plant will soon be laid along Kentucky 15, giving the county two connectors with the Carr Creek Lake water supply.
Board Member Billy Stamper presented a series of charts he had made using district financial records. Stamper said he had laid the charts out to reflect revenue coming in and money going out and the charts clearly show that the district is operating in the red. He said that the fiscal court picks up the diff erence but added that when several projects that are currently underway or ready to begin are complete, the district will soon have enough revenue from adding customers to break even and eventually make enough profit to put money back to manage emergencies and provide for a maintenance and emergency fund. Stamper’s charts cover the period from September 22 through December 22 and show a daily operating cost of $2,403.18 against revenue of $1,969.36 and revenue total credit of $177,242.20 against operating and maintenance total debt of $216,286.34. Stamper said he plans to continue to monitor finances and present reports on a monthly basis and suggested changing the way accounts are paid and debt transfers are recorded so expenses can be applied more accurately.
In other business, the board voted unanimously to approve a budget of $970,900 against revenues of $999,765. Jamie Noe of Bell Engineering reported that the Craft’s Colly relocation of a water line at Copperhead Road is complete and the project can be closed out. Noe also reported that the Knott County Interconnect has operated on an emergency basis since December 11 and the project is ready to complete construction
The Garner Mountain Water Improvements Project has been approved by the Kentucky DOW and construction can begin at the district’s directive, The Loggy Hollow project has also been approved and construction can begin as soon as funding is available.
A pre-construction conference for the Premium Highway 160 project was held on October 21 and construction will begin as soon as the contractor (Stott’s Construction) completes work on the Knott County Interconnect. Construction started on the Thornton Project on December 6 and on Red Star/Ulvah/Hallie on November 15 and is ongoing on both. CSX approved right of way on the Red Star/Ulvah/Hallie Project and submitted an invoice for payment.
Project layout is complete on the Millstone Project and pending selection of a tank site, will be submitted to DOW. The layout is also complete on the Deane/ Beaver Gap Project pending selection of a tank and pump site.