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Ruling may help get water lines into other areas

A ruling handed down last week by Letcher Circuit Judge Sam Wright appears to clear the way for the Letcher County Water and Sewer District to move ahead with plans to provide water service to 280 homes in the area between Camp Branch and Indian Creek.

Wright ruled on November 1 that it will be left up to three trustees appointed in 2002 to determine whether the Water and Sewer District has complied with the terms of the settlement agreement of a lawsuit between Golden Oak Mining Company and 29 families who live in the area.

“He ruled that the (three) trustees have the sole discretion to decide whether or not the water system is offering good potable water in sufficient quantity,” said Letcher Count Attorney Harold Bolling, who also represents the Water and Sewer District.

Two of the current trustees, Gary Hall of Thornton and Larry Adams of Pert Creek, were appointed after an insurance company representing now-defunct Golden Oak agreed to pay $1.5 million to 29 residents whose water sources were destroyed when Golden Oak mined the Elkhorn No. 3 coal seam under 1,400 acres of property on Camp Branch, Stinking Branch, and Indian Creek between 1993 and 1997. The third trustee, Don Profitt of Stinking Branch, was appointed after the death of original trustee James McAuley.

Under the agreement reached between the 29 property owners and Golden Oak’s insurer, the $1.5 million was placed in a trust that would be used to “secure good quality municipal water services to Upper Camp Branch, Stinking Branch and the portion of Indian Creek around the homes of Alben Watts, Louise Gregory, John Jent Jr., Teddy Johnson and Farris Hall.”

The agreement also called for the $1.5 million placed in the trust to be divided equally among 29 families if they didn’t have water service within a five-year period ending last Friday (November 2).

After the money was placed in the trust, the three trustees entered into an agreement with the Water and Sewer District to provide municipal water service to the area. The district was able to obtain grants and loans from the Department of Abandoned Mine Lands and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Devel opment Agency to build the lines to the 29 homes. They plan to use the $1.5 million in the trust as seed money for matching grants and loans to back up and install water lines to areas they bypassed in order to meet the fiveyear limit – Pistol City, Cane Hollow, Buck Creek, Beaver Dam and Love’s Branch.

Last Friday’s ruling by Wright came after 13 of the 29 original plaintiffs in the suit against Golden Oak refused to sign user agreements to hook onto the water system. They instead asked Wright to order that the $1.5 million be divided up.

“Some are convinced they will get a lot of money,” District Two Magistrate Archie Banks said at a special meeting of the Letcher Fiscal Court held the night before last week’s hearing. “They told them they will get $60,000 to $70,000 each.”

County Attorney Bolling said that for a variety of reasons, 13 of the 29 plaintiffs in the original lawsuit haven’t signed up for the now-available water service. He said there were some valid issues, including some contamination caused by some homes being last on the lines, but Gary Pridemore, executive director of the Water and Sewer District, told the court the contamination had been resolved with the installation of a chlorinator. Bolling also said that dry weather has led to some line breaks but all the issues have been addressed.

“It’s been completed for a while,” said Bolling. “The lines have been in place for a while. There were issues with potability but it is potable now.”

Seth Long, a member of the Water and Sewer District, told the court the bypassed areas could provide up to $6,000 a month in revenue to the district by servicing 280 homes. Pridemore said the Water and Sewer District is currently operating at a deficit. Bolling added that without the settlement money, rates for all county customers could be raised to meet the cost of running the lines.

“The potential is the Public Service Commission will say to raise the rates to foot the bill,” said Bolling. “That would be disastrous. Rates will go sky high to support the system.”

Judge/Executive Jim Ward said the Water and Sewer District had upheld its part of the bargain by extending the water lines to Indian Creek. Ward said the water is at the plaintiffs’ homes waiting for them to hook on.

After Wright announced his ruling last week, an attorney for the three trustees filed a motion asking for an extension of time “for a reasonable period to enable the trustees to make a determination as to whether or not a sufficient quantity and quality of water have been provided to the plaintiffs as required by the trust agreement.”

A hearing on the motion will be held in Letcher Circuit Court on December 6.

In a related matter, Pridemore reported to the fiscal court last week on water line work as well as funding for planned projects. Pridemore said funding has been approved for the Sandlick to Camp Branch work, and that the Sandlick to Blackey connector line is mostly competed. He said a pumping station for the connector is two to three months ways from completion.

Smoot Creek is fully funded and as soon as the district receives approval of the final plan from the Kentucky Department of Water, the project will be advertised for bids. Pine Creek, Bull Creek, and Carcassonne are being studied by AML for possible funding. The Thornton Project is $1.6 million shy of being completely funded. Pridemore said he had submitted a $500,000 grant application to the Appalachian Regional Commission and will apply to Rural Development for the rest as soon as the ARC funding is secured.

Pridemore said the original plan to supply people on the Cumberland River side of Pine Mountain with water from the Cumberland system has hit a snag and the Letcher County Water and Sewer District may have to move a planned pumping station and water tank closer to Cumberland to provide the necessary water pressure. He said he plans on meeting with Harlan County Judge/Executive Joseph Grieshop and trying to work something out.

Magistrate Wayne Fleming said the line is more important to Letcher County than it is to Harlan County.

“They don’t have an incentive (to place the pump station and tank),” said Fleming. “We do.”

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