CHURCH HILL — Scott Rutledge has been fighting for nearly two decades to extend water service into the community surrounding the Carters Valley Landfill where the well water is contaminated, a battle he thought he’d finally won this past June.
With two failed $500,000 CDBG grant applications for the project already in the books, Rutledge was able to convince the Hawkins County Commission to allocate $500,000 from Gov. Bill Lee’s one-time COVID-19 emergency Local Support Grant (LSG) to help pay for extending water lines to about 30 homes.
Hawkins County is receiving a total of $1.176 million in one-time LSG funds to offset funding needs during the COVID-19 crisis.
At its June meeting, the commission voted 17-4 to contribute $500,000 from that LSG funding to help the First Utility District extend water to approximately 30 residences on Gravely Valley Road and Cobb Road north of Church Hill, where wells were contaminated by faulty septic systems and radon.
On Monday, however, the commission will consider rescinding that funding.
20 wells tested positive for coliform bacteria, 6 for E. coli
Rutledge owns a farm in that community, and although he doesn’t live there, the people who have tainted wells are his friends and neighbors.
Many of the residents there are older and sick. Rutledge told the Times News that some are either in treatment or recovering from treatment for various forms of cancer. He said the addition of not having potable water makes those health struggles much harder.
In December 2019, the Tennessee Department of Health collected samples from wells on Gravely Valley and Cobb Road. Twenty tested positive for coliform bacteria and six for E. coli.
In addition, 14 homes tested for radon at or above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level, and low levels of aluminum, boron, copper and lead were found in 76% of homes tested.
When the commission approved the funding in June, Rutledge thought his long fight to bring water to that community was over. But, he’ll be back in the trenches at Monday’s County Commission meeting thanks to a resolution submitted by Commissioner Glenda Davis to rescind that $500,000 allocation.
KTN: What was your reaction to the proposed rescinding resolution?
Rutledge: It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. As many times as these people have been promised, it’s discouraging. I can’t even begin to describe. It’s not even humane to take this money back from these people.”
KTN: What is your plan for Monday’s commission meeting?
Rutledge: I’m going to plan on having $500,000 to put with the rest of the money to put these people’s water in. That is my plan. I can’t believe anybody who has a heart that beats, that cares for another human, would even start to do this. It’s hard to believe.”
Intended to impact Hawkins County residents as a whole
In addition to the county’s $500,000, First Utility District has also pledged $200,000 toward the project, and landfill operator Republic Services has reportedly agreed to contribute $125,000 despite the fact that the landfill isn’t being blamed for the contamination.
Two previous CDBG applications had been denied by the state due to the lack of density of homes. The state has taken the position that $500,000 is too high a cost for serving only 30 homes.
That’s the same basic justification for the resolution seeking to rescind the county funding. Although the resolution was filed by Davis, it’s most vocal supporter has been Commissioner John Metz, who chairs the Budget Committee.
“The Governor’s Local Support Grant is intended to positively impact Hawkins County residents as a whole, not a small select group of property owners,” Metz said. “Limiting access to clean water to select property owners is discriminatory. The Tennessee Department of Environment and conservation estimates that 24% of Hawkins County residents do not have access to a public potable water source.”
Metz added, “First Utility District is the largest public water utility in Hawkins County serving almost 19,000 households. The decision to take taxpayer funds to improve the balance sheet of a private entity establishes a new precedent previously unseen by County Commission. Hawkins County government is not in the utility business.”
Metz suggested that First Utility District could pay for the project by adding $3 to each of its customers’ monthly water bills.
Metz added, “We’re going to establish a precedent by doing this that any time something like a faulty septic system causes contamination of someone’s well … What is going to say the county shouldn’t step in to rectify that particular issue? … There are 16 water utility districts that operate in Hawkins County. When something like this occurs in another community involving another utility district, what are we supposed to do?”
Davis’s resolution calls for the LSG funds to be used solely for public safety, including the purchase of an ambulance for Hawkins County EMS, installing defibrillators in every county vehicle, and providing county employees with COVID-19 hazard pay in the amount of $1,000 for full-time employees and $500 for part-time employees.
“Put yourself in our place”
Larry Williams has lived in the contaminated area of Gravely Valley Road for 25 years, but he didn’t know about the level of contamination in his well until it was tested by the Tennessee Department of Health in December, which found high levels of E. coli and radon.
“A lady from Nashville come up and said it was pretty bad,” Williams said. “I thought she meant not to drink it, but she called me back and said it’s so bad she wouldn’t even recommend taking a shower in it. Not to boil it. She wouldn’t recommend that either. She recommended not using it at all.
KTN: Does that make it hard to live?
Williams: “It does. You’ve got to buy store-bought water for drinking and cooking. You’ve got to have store bought water because it’s not safe to cook with either. I still take a shower. I’m hoping my dishwasher takes care of the (contamination). It gets hot enough to kill it in it, but it’s a job.”
KTN: What did you think when the County Commission approved your funding in June?
Williams: “I was happy. It sounded good for a little while.”
KTN: What were your thoughts when you found out there’s a resolution to rescind your water funding?
Williams: “Like here we go again. Promises and nothing happening. Same thing over and over.”
KTN: Can you describe your neighbors’ need for clean water?
Williams: “We’ve all got about the same needs. Mostly older people, I guess, and they’re not in good health. You can’t always get out and carry water, but it’s hard for me to carry it at all. My Parkinson’s is getting worse, and I can hardly hold one, much less carry it any more. It would just be a good thing to have it through here for good. Make a lot of people’s lives a lot easier.”
KTN: If you could speak to the County Commission before they vote Monday, what would you say?
Williams: “Put yourself in our place. If you never went through it, you don’t know what it is. If you feel safe about turning your spigot on and drinking it, that’s good, but we don’t get that privilege.”