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Tests on Letcher water pending

Schools will be closed for the rest of the week in Letcher County, where thousands of residents are still without water after the water supply was tainted by oil.

And officials with Kentucky's Division of Emergency Management have set up an emergency operations center in Whitesburg to develop long-range plans in case the water continues to be unusable.

Investigators found petroleum seeping into the North Fork of the Kentucky River, about a mile from the Whitesburg water plant's intake, after residents called Saturday complaining that their water smelled like gasoline, Whitesburg Mayor James Craft said.

State and local officials quickly shut down and then cleaned the water plant, which serves about 2,000 residents throughout Letcher County, he said.

Allison Fleck, spokeswoman for the state Division of Water, said tests from the water plant should be in late Thursday and should show whether the water is safe or is still contaminated.

"Then we will know exactly what we are dealing with," Fleck said.

One option would be to go above the contaminated area of the river and pump water to the plant.

In the meantime, residents have been asked not to consume the water or use it for anything.

"If this is a petroleum-based product and it is in the water supply, it could cause some problems," Fleck said. "As this goes on, people may be tempted to wash clothes or take a shower, but they really should avoid skin contact with the water."

Even the fumes of the petroleum coming through the faucet could be harmful, Fleck said. She also added that boiling the water will not make it safe to use and could concentrate any contaminants.

Local businesses, including Wal-Mart and Save-A-Lot, are distributing free water. And nearby Perry County is having a drive for bottles or jugs of water to help out.

Other businesses have been disrupted by the contamination. The health department has prohibited restaurants from serving sit-down meals because customers can't wash their hands, and beauty shops are closed because beauticians can't wash their clients' hair.

The Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital and local nursing homes have also been affected.

Both state and local officials have declined to name the source of the contamination because they say it is still under investigation.

However, citations could be issued soon, Fleck said.

"We are hoping this is short-lived, but it all depends on the test," she said. "We ask for the public's patience. We do have their best interest and their safety at the heart of this."