Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Waterway pollution worsening

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Many Kentucky creeks and rivers are polluted with unsafe levels of fecal coliform that could make swimmers sick.

        The fecal coliform, a bacteria in human and animal waste, found in the waterways suggest the presence of untreated or poorly treated sewage and the presence of infectious diseases, particularly diarrheal illnesses.

        Hank Graddy, an environmental activist, said the situation doesn't seem to be getting any better.

        “It's really hard for me to see any improvement,” he said Saturday after looking at results of water testing by the state and volunteers.

        Some of the state's 2002 numbers look better than those in 2001, he said, but that was because May 2001 was an especially wet month.

        Pollution counts often are higher after rain because that is when sewer lines are more likely to be overwhelmed, faulty septic tanks flushed, and animal waste washed into creeks.

        Mr. Graddy, a Midway lawyer, started volunteer pollution-monitoring programs several years ago that now cover several river basins.

        The state Division of Water recently put out its annual list of waterways that are unfit for skin contact. The list included the North Fork of the Kentucky River, the Upper Cumberland River, a small portion of the Licking River, and the broad ban on waterways “in and directly below urban areas.”

        Other tests, including those conducted by volunteers and the University of Kentucky, show that pollution is more widespread than the state warnings suggest.

        In the Bluegrass region, for example, high fecal coliform counts have been found in Elkhorn, West Hickman and Jessamine creeks.

        There could be a number of causes, including malfunctioning septic tanks, overflowing sewer lines, domestic animals and straight pipes that run directly from bathrooms to creeks.

        “A lot of the potential pollutants in an urban environment will get to a creek faster and not be caught by vegetation or grass or whatever,” said Lindell Ormsbee, interim director of UK's Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment.

        The biggest push in cleaning up creeks and rivers has been in eastern Kentucky, where failing septic tanks and straight pipes are most common.

        The effort is being coordinated by Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment, or PRIDE. The organization was started five years ago by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford.

        PRIDE has found 36,000 straight pipes and bad septic tanks in a 40-county area, executive director Karen Engle said.

        More than 3,500 have been eliminated through grants to homeowners. Projects in the works will eventually take care of 17,000, she said. “We're making progress,” Ms. Engle said. “It's slow. I'm impatient, but we are making progress.”

        The state is stepping up efforts to get rid of straight pipes. It has investigated hundreds in the last year, most of them in the 40 PRIDE counties.

        Mr. Graddy said he has regular conversations with state environmental regulators who insist they are taking long-range steps to make Kentucky creeks safe for swimming.

        In the Kentucky River basin, where volunteer testing began, there now are enough results to show a significant problem, he said.

        “We're asking the question, "What are you going to do about it?'” Mr. Graddy said. “We are told the state is working on a plan, and we have to just monitor it as close as we can.”


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