As officials in Eastern Kentucky look to promote the area as a tourist destination, we are sure that “Don’t wade in the creek” is not a slogan they are looking to use, but it’s a fact of life in this region and one that should have been properly addressed years ago.
Discharging raw sewage into the waterways of Eastern Kentucky from private residences is widespread, and for several reasons the practice still continues today. In a 2002 report released by the EPA, an estimated 40 percent of Kentucky homes are not connected to a centralized sewer system, and about 33 percent of the state’s waterways are “impaired with high levels of pathogens due to improper waste disposal.”
Although there have been efforts to address this problem, most recently with the PRIDE grant program and the efforts of a handfull of local governments, simply not enough people care about this issue to address it properly. Straight pipes have become a part of the culture in this region so much that more than one generation now doesn’t know what it’s like to take a swim in a local stream because in many cases they may be swimming by a straight pipe. The Kentucky Division of Water continues to issue a swimming advisory for the North Fork of the Kentucky River here in Perry County, noting that several illegal straight pipes and the sewage they transport to the waterways add to the water quality problems, and currently it’s just not advisable to take a dip.
And this issue doesn’t just bemoan the detrimental health aspects that straight pipes represent, but also the economics of the region as well. Adventure tourism is beginning to grow, and that’s a good thing, but as long as we allow our neighbors to flush their toilets in our streams and rivers the number of people who will seek out the best our region has to offer will be limited.
Local government is working on the problem with a stream mitigation project for Troublesome Creek which includes an agreement with Knott, Perry, and Breathitt Counties, but they can’t solve the problem by themselves. We are hearing very little from the state and federal government, and we’d like to hear even more from environmental groups who seem more than willing to hold politicians’ feet to the flame on surface coal mining, but not so much on the prevalence of straight pipes.
Government agencies like the Division of Water and the EPA could do more on the enforcement side as well. It is illegal to discharge raw sewage into the waterways of Kentucky, and it’s time authorities wake up and begin really enforcing these laws and seeking out offenders. We owe it to the future generations to become good stewards of our streams, and tackling this issue should be high on the list of priorities.