Hepatitis outbreak was impetus for clean water

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By Linda Ireland

A little more than 50 years ago, a young boy fell victim to an outbreak of hepatitis.
Dale Meers spent part of his summer break under a doctor’s care as his parents, John T. and Genrose, worried about his prognosis as they heard of other cases in the Buffalo area.
His physician, Dr. Carson Crabtree, believed the outbreak of hepatitis was linked to dirty water.
Hepatitis, a broad term for inflammation of the liver, is linked to poor sanitation. It can be mild – lasting a couple of weeks –or disabling.
Young Dale made a complete recovery – but his illness made his parents determined to do something about their water situation.
 ‘Awful, just awful’ water
John T. and Genrose built their home in Buffalo in the late 1950s. Their water source was from two wells that contained sulfur water.
Water containing hydrogen sulfide gas (sulfur water) has a distinctive “rotten egg” odor, according to the Extension Service through Purdue University. It’s not usually a health risk – but the taste and smell is “awful, just awful,” Genrose said.
“Sulfur water just ruined clothes,” she said. “You’d wash sheets and you could see the imprint of your body on them – I guess from the oil on your skin. It was just unbelievable. The boys got to where they didn’t want me to wash their undershirts because they turned yellow.”
Sulfur water corroded plumbing and anything with exposed metal parts.
John T. didn’t want to wash his car with the water because the mineral turned it white.
But trying to cook with the stinky water was the worst.
“You couldn’t cook with it – dried beans turned into hard little rocks – you couldn’t make iced tea,” Genrose said.
The Meers’ – who will be married 67 years in September – often carried water from their nearby service station so they would have better-tasting water for cooking.
“It was a nuisance,” Genrose said.
But there was something worse than sulfur water affecting their neighborhood.
Buffalo has no sewer system and each homeowner is responsible for disposing of human waste in a safe, sanitary way.
Now, most people have septic systems. But 50 years ago, there was little governmental oversight to make sure a rural water supply was uncontaminated by feces. Some homes had a “straight pipe” from their bathrooms to a creek or ditch. The contaminants in the water re-entered homes in drinking water.
Dr. Crabtree believed those contaminants caused Dale’s illness.
John T., a businessman and captain of the volunteer fire department, began talking to anyone who would listen about the need for clean, reliable water. He found many of his neighbors had the same concerns.
“To my knowledge, there wasn’t anybody who had good water – they had water they could use,” he said. “It’s a wonder we didn’t all die.”
Formation of water district
On May 10, 1963, LaRue County Judge Earl Scott signed an order naming Meers, Dr. John Davis and Mary Lela Parish as the first three commissioners of the newly formed LaRue County Water District No. 1. They each executed a $1,000 bond as part of their duties.
They began going door-to-door to get their neighbors to sign up for water service.
“We had to get so many people to sign up before getting water,” said John T. “It was a pretty good task – none of us had ever done anything like that.”
Some people balked, not wanting to pay for something they had been getting free.
“Water was eating the pipes right out of their house and they wanted someone to do something for nothing,” said John T.
Former businessman Donahue Ferrill bought the final eight-or-so hookups himself so the area could get water.
“He had sense enough to know what he was doing,” said John T. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to Buffalo.”
The water was supplied from the City of Hodgenville and Green River.
In those early years, the district had a handful of customers, said John Detre, a commissioner for the water board since 1988.
“In 1963 we had seven miles of line and 100 customers and probably most of that (line) ran from Hodgenville to Buffalo,” said Detre. “Now we have 350 miles of lines and 3,225 customers.”
Detre said 98 to 99 percent of LaRue County is covered by water service.
Getting started
Installing lines was a slow and expensive process, said John T. Regulations required a steel pipe, which was costly.
“Not long afterwards they changed it (to plastic pipe),” he said.
The first water district office was located in a building that now houses Pizza Zone. It was later moved to the Meers’ old service station on North L&N Turnpike.
Signing up for water service is not considered as much of an expense these days, said Detre. Purchasing a hook-up is considered more efficient than digging a well.
“We’ve made quite a bit of progress over the years,” he said.
There are nine tanks in use – including the original Buffalo tank. Regulations require the district have a “day’s worth” of water in storage.
The district hears few complaints about water service and tries to “work with people,” he added.
The district has managed to pay back the original 1964 bond and refinance others at lower rates.
There have been a few interruptions in service – including the 2009 ice storm – where the generator promised by FEMA never showed up; and sheet erosion that washed out a line in the Barren Run section.
The district’s largest burdens are “burdensome” paperwork dealing with finances, reviews and water testing.
A crisis averted
Flooding and ice caused some breaks in water service – but in 1983, the district’s progress was impeded by a disagreement with the City of Hodgenville. The City was the largest wholesaler of water to the county and due to a conflict over charges, threatened to terminate the contract with the water district.
Damon Talley, who has served as attorney for the water district since 1983, started his career in Hodgenville during the crisis.
Talley moved from Horse Cave to Hodgenville that year to take over the law practice of Larry Raikes – who was elected as Circuit Judge.
Representing the water district was a “good fit” for him as he had been working with the Kentucky Rural Water Corporation and the Green River Water District.
“It became very heated – a lot of it went back to lack of communication and lack of trust,” Talley said. “We had to cool down tempers on both sides.”
The city and water district eventually worked out the disagreement and continue the contract – which still exists.
“I earned my stripes then,” said Talley. “…We were never without water – even a single day.”
Over the years, Talley has advised the district through expansion into southern Nelson County, including Nelsonville and Lyons; holding community meetings to explain upcoming projects; feasibility studies; obtaining easement rights; and obtaining loans through Rural Development.
He credits fiscal court for appointing commissioners who have been interested in serving the community for “the right reasons.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to represent utilities all across Kentucky and I am very proud the board members in LaRue County have always (done) what is best for the customers – not out of spite or trying to take advantage or grind an axe…. I’m very happy to see that here in my hometown.
I’ve seen all, across the state … other places, people on these boards for the wrong reason.”