Some Bledsoe County residents living without drinkable tap water

Some Bledsoe County residents living without drinkable tap water

December 12th, 2013 by Alex Green in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam talks with sisters Sue Robnett, center, and Elizabeth Robnett as he visits the Bledsoe County Courthouse in Pikeville on Wednesday to announce Community Development Block Grants for the county and Pikeville.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

A lively crowd met Gov. Bill Haslam on the courthouse lawn in Pikeville, Tenn., on Wednesday.

Haslam and officials with the Southeast Tennessee Development District came to deliver a check for $500,000 to fund the extension of water lines to residents in the city and county who are using tainted well water. Some residents' tap water is tainted with bacteria, such as E. coli.

"The water out there is so bad the dogs won't drink it," said development district Executive Director Beth Jones, quoting the original application for the state grant.

She said the district gets requests for three times the number of grants it has to actually give out every year. Grants are competitive and awarded based on several factors, including the financial need of a municipality and the number of low-income residents positively affected by a grant.

Also, some of the prerequisites are based on census numbers.

"This is one of those programs that meets all that criteria," Jones said.

Working his way through the crowd Wednesday afternoon, Haslam said he enjoys getting out of Nashville occasionally and going out to communities like Bledsoe County and its county seat, Pikeville, because it gives him a chance to chat with local leaders and get a feel for what the state's communities need and want.

"Talking to leaders on the ground, you hear about concerns," he said.

And gesturing around downtown Pikeville, he said it gives him and development district officials a chance to see "where the money's actually going. Haslam said that, as Knoxville's former mayor, he enjoys seeing things work at the local level.

Bledsoe County and the City of Pikeville agreed to put $150,000 toward the water line extensions, which will run out to stretches of East Valley Road, Pope Road and Pope Tee Road.

Chuck Hammonds, assistant executive director at the development district, said the two entities were required only to put up around $50,000 to receive the grant, but city and county leaders agreed to go 50/50 and put up $75,000 each to ensure the project has enough money to be completed.

Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier said hopefully work on the water line extensions will begin by the upcoming summer and be completed by summer 2015.

Taken for granted

It's still hard for some people -- even in the metro area around Chattanooga -- to think there are Tennesseans "a stone's throw away" who don't have potable, or drinkable, water, Jones said Wednesday.

She meant a figurative stone's throw, from Chattanooga and Hamilton County over to Pikeville and Bledsoe. But some residents over that way have been buying water by the gallon from the store, at 37 cents per gallon or more. Some buy bottled water to drink and cook with.

"When you wash [clothes], you don't put your white clothes in until the water's run in," said Shirley Simmons, who lives just outside Pikeville.

"It's not clear water. It's got a tan tint to it."

She uses her tap water occasionally for coffee, because then she and her husband can't see that the water is cloudy.

Simmons approached Jones after the hubbub following Haslam died out. Simmons thanked Jones but reminded her that there's still work to be done.

That's not news to Jones or any of the officials -- state and local -- who attended Wednesday's announcement.

"We're working on that," said Collier.

A good day for Bledsoe County

Later inside his office, Collier unwrapped a Christmas tree-shaped dish of sweets baked up just for the governor's visit.

"For us to know he recognizes the hard work so many people have put into this ... " he said. "He understands the necessities of the infrastructure for the people who need it."

Pikeville Mayor Phillip "Winky" Cagle quizzed development district officials Wednesday on how many governors have stood at the courthouse steps and addressed Bledsoe resident directly.

"In 35 years of service, know how many governors I've seen stand right there?" he said. "Two."

Phil Bredesen, Haslam's predecessor, was the first, he said, as far as he can remember.

The city and county are like most others in that they apply for grants over and over, hoping to get lucky one day and get one.

In Collier's office, Haslam's ceremonial oversized check for $500,000 leaned against the wall. Collier and Cagle also learned Wednesday that the development district awarded Pikeville a $25,000 grant for work on Main Street, to update and improve building facades and awnings. That grant requires about $8,500 from the city.

Earlier Wednesday morning, Collier officially found out Bledsoe County was awarded another grant, from the Appalachian Regional Commission. It will provide $50,000 to help create a farmer's market next door to the Bledsoe County Courthouse in Pikeville.

That, plus Haslam's visit and the other big news of the day, put a smile on the county mayor's face.

"I was going to tell [Haslam]," Collier said, regretting a lost opportunity. "I thought Santa Claus had a beard and a red suit. Apparently he drives a black Escalade."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.