After a dam failed in Martin County in 2000 and released more than 3 million gallons of coal waste into area creeks, university sociologists began studying how the disaster affected local residents. The survey’s results found they were more distrustful of the local, state and federal governments than those living in surrounding counties. Now, the same researchers have completed a follow-up a decade later and found that issues linger, but some trust has been regained.
A lot of what University of Kentucky sociology professor Shaunna Scott and her team found in Martin County ten years after the slurry spill wasn’t surprising—like those with higher levels of education were more distrustful of the safety of their drinking water.
But she says there were a few interesting tidbits gleaned from the surveys, especially compared with research conducted by Eastern Kentucky University.
“They found that in other counties in eastern Kentucky—not Martin County—distrust of drinking water was related to distrust of the local water district management,” she said. “However, we found in Martin County that safety of the drinking water was more closely related to distrust in coal companies.”
Overall, though the data show public trust has increased in the decade following the disaster, Scott says the community hasn’t totally recovered. About fifty percent of those Martin County residents surveyed think that the quality of their drinking water is a serious concern.
“I think what’s notable is really in the bigger picture—how distrustful people still are that the water’s safe and how much they are still interested enough in this issue that so many of them will continue to spend their time to take this survey,” Scott said.
The spill didn’t kill anyone, but it could have, and residents didn’t get any notification that the deluge of waste was coming.
Scott says there’s also still a lot of support to pass a bill requiring areas near large slurry impoundment to develop emergency action plans. Bills that would do that have died repeatedly in the state legislature.