For the first time in five years, Amy Banks can sit on her front porch and enjoy the fresh mountain air and the colorful flowers that surround her mobile home in the hills.
Banks' malfunctioning septic system used to spew foul-smelling human waste across her lawn and into a stream flowing through the Appalachian community of Browns Fork.
Finally, two months ago, Banks was able to replace the septic system with a grant from PRIDE, a government-sponsored environmental organization created five years ago to help poverty-stricken eastern Kentucky shed its image as a place of hillbilly squalor.
Karen Engle, the group's executive director, said the goal is to build a thriving tourism economy. That, she said, can only be done after illegal garbage dumps that blight the roadsides are cleaned up and after the streams are cleared of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage flowing into them each year.
PRIDE, which stands for Personal Responsibility in a Desired Environment, has paid for about 3,500 new septic systems in the past year and plans to replace 14,000 more with $9 million in federal funds earmarked for the program, said Janet Bridges, chief financial officer for the organization.
The long-range goal is to eliminate 36,000 so-called straight pipes in Kentucky that send human waste directly into streams each time a toilet is flushed. The pipes have been blamed for high levels of intestinal bacteria that have made eastern Kentucky creeks and rivers unsafe for swimming.
In its annual survey of waterways, the Kentucky Division of Water lists several streams in eastern Kentucky including the North Fork of the Kentucky River, the Upper Cumberland River and a small portion of the Licking River that could make swimmers sick.
"I'd like to see the kids be able to go into the streams again and swim like I did when I was young," said Tony Lewis, coordinator of the PRIDE initiative in rural Perry County, where more than 250 septic systems have been installed in the past year. "We are getting closer every day to making our streams clean."
State inspectors are cracking down on violators. Residents deemed financially able must pay $3,500 for basic septic systems or for hookups to municipal sewage-treatment systems. Those with incomes of less than $14,000 a year qualify for PRIDE grants.
Officials have wrestled with the problems for decades. PRIDE has gathered an army of volunteers each year to clean up the trash that blights the countryside. Now, the free septic systems are helping clean up the water.
Over the years, some eastern Kentucky residents who could not afford a septic system have improvised. Environmental inspectors have dug into the ground to find metal barrels, refrigerators, even automobiles being used to collect the sewage flushed from commodes.
State environmental inspectors have written 500 citations to people who were polluting streams with their waste. Those cited face fines of up to $25,000 a day, unless they agree to install a septic system. In those cases, the fines are dismissed.
"The idea is not to penalize people," said Mark York, spokesman for the state environmental agency. "We're trying to use the stick-and-carrot approach."
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