WHITESBURG — A diesel spill that shut off municipal water a week ago Saturday was an inevitable accident, given the type of underground equipment involved, officials say, and it highlights the need for good planning and safeguards for local infrastructure.
The contamination was the third in less than three years linked to Whitesburg company Childers Oil. The morning of Feb. 12, a small amount of diesel fuel leaked from an underground pipe associated with an above-ground storage tank that had been out of commission since November. The diesel made its way down a ditch line, into the North Fork of the Kentucky River and to the water intake.
Underground pipes and tanks are known for corrosion and leakage, said Art Smith, the on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Smith also investigated a 2009 diesel spill from a Childers Oil tank storage site in Mayking, upstream from Whitesburg.
As for Saturday's spill, "there was probably less that could have been done up front to prevent it," Smith said. "That's not unusual for an oil bulk plant like this to have leaking. That was just a matter of time."
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Smith characterized the amount of diesel spilled as "minute" and accidental, not necessarily negligent or deliberate. He said that since 2009, Childers Oil has been working to add required secondary containment to its storage sites and inventory. The company also has made efforts to protect underground pipes and tanks.
"They can and will leak. Buried steel piping will leak over time," Smith said. "There's a strong recognition now on the part of the agency and the Childers Oil company, that any future buried piping should have some sort of cathodic protection," an electrical current applied to steel pipes to slow corrosion.
It appears that last Saturday's leak was slow over time, said Jon Maybriar, manager of the state Division of Waste Management, which regulates underground storage tanks. It took place in an unused underground line associated with a 300,000-gallon above-ground tank. Even though it was unused, every time the line was pressurized, diesel would leak into the ground, Maybriar said. The state has ordered the leaky line removed, and tests showed that several underground tanks and lines are not in danger.
The geography of Whitesburg makes it vulnerable, officials said.
The Childers Oil bulk plant, a wholesale distributor of refined petroleum products, sits near the Pine Mountain Junction intersection — not far from a gas station, auto repair shop and other industrial sites, about half a mile upstream from the Whitesburg Water Works. Letcher County contains the headwaters of three of the state's major rivers: the Kentucky, the Big Sandy and the Cumberland. The imposing Pine Mountain splits the county's infrastructure in two.
"Everybody who's on wells really wants to get city water and sewer," said Rep. Leslie Combs, a Pikeville Democrat who represents part of Letcher County. "I often tell a lot of folks, a lot of times it's the way you progress that infrastructure out, otherwise you spend double and triple what you should."
Combs said she has constant conversations with local officials about making expansions and improvements to the county and city water systems.
After the 2009 spill, the city added a $125,000 carbon feed system to its plant, a state-mandated upgrade that removes tiny amounts of dissolved hydrocarbons from water to improve the taste and smell. The city received a $171,000 federal grant for the project. But it is not designed to remove large amounts of diesel from the water. No plant is so designed, said Veolia Water spokesman Matt Demo.
He said there are some options for protecting the plant against future spills. An early-detection system could be installed to alert plant operators to the presence of petroleum in the river. The intake pipe could be moved below the surface of the water, as long as sediment and turbidity in the river isn't a problem.
Or the treatment plant could be moved upstream from Childers Oil's bulk plant, a hugely expensive option that won't guard against spills from other sources.
Since 2009, the county water system, a customer of Whitesburg's treatment plant, has recently finished tying 1,900 customers into Knott County's water system. Having a secondary source of water saved most of the county system from being put under the same no-contact advisory as Whitesburg. Tim Reed, supervisor of the county water system, said the Knott County treatment plant at Carr Creek can supply around two-thirds of Letcher County's customers.
"That Knott County interconnect has been great," said Phillip Back, the county water board chairman, at a meeting Thursday.
In September, Childers Oil settled with the state over the 2008 and 2009 spills and was ordered to pay $500,000, part of which was designated for local water and sewer infrastructure. But that amount doesn't come close to paying for projects like the Knott County interconnect, which was paid for with more than $5 million in state, federal and single-county coal severance tax money.
Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft said he hoped to persuade the state to help buy a petroleum detection system for the water plant's intake pipe.
Residents are organizing. A public meeting is planned for Thursday.
OSM/VISTA volunteer Clary Estes with the local group Kentucky Headwaters Inc. said she has heard from residents who were confused by the public information and emergency alerts issued over the weekend. At first they weren't told the reason for the non-consumption advisory. Some thought they could boil the water and be safe — but boiling doesn't help in a diesel spill. Residents also haven't been told they need to run taps for 20 minutes and empty their water heaters to flush their homes.
Estes said the county's first emergency call went out at 5 p.m., three hours after the no-contact order was issued by the state.
She said residents also are frustrated by the power Childers Oil seems to have over their drinking water. They want local officials to hold the company accountable.
"A restaurant owner said, 'If I took the oil that I cooked with in a week and dumped it in the river, I would be in jail,'" Estes said.