Water tainted in Whitesburg

Petroleum has temporarily tainted the water supply of an Eastern Kentucky town, throwing residents into "absolute pandemonium," according to the mayor.

Residents of Whitesburg are urged not to drink or use city water.

Whitesburg officials notified state authorities after receiving several calls Saturday from people who said they smelled gasoline in their water, Whitesburg Mayor James Craft said.

State authorities tested samples from the Whitesburg water plant Saturday but the petroleum was "either gone or was not prevalent enough to detect," Craft said.

However, on Sunday the odor worsened and authorities closed the plant and issued an advisory asking residents not to consume the water or use it for anything other than flushing toilets as they searched for the source of the problem.

They found petroleum seeping into the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Letcher County, about a mile from the plant's water intake, said Allison Fleck, spokeswoman for the state Division of Water.

The plant serves 2,000 residents in the county, Craft said.

Both Fleck and Craft declined to name the source of the spill, because they say it is still under investigation. Craft said only that he thought the contamination was accidental. Citations could be issued, he said.

Fleck said the amount of oil that drained into the river "was very little." She said the water plant has been thoroughly cleaned and refilled as a precaution. Authorities are waiting on water tests and — if all is as expected — the advisory could be lifted this week, she said.

In the meantime, Craft said the county has been in "absolute pandemonium," as residents lined up at the fire station, recycling center and City Hall in Whitesburg to pick up bottled water for free.

The bottled water was given to the city by Don Childers, president of Childers Oil Company and owner of multiple gas stations in Letcher County and southeastern Kentucky.

Sheila Adams, 50, of Whitesburg, said she heated bottles of water Monday morning so her two teenage daughters could get ready to go to school.

"There's not enough of it to fill a bath tub, so I put it in the sink," she said. "At least this way they could wash all the important parts. It's been awful."

Craft said the contamination also has disrupted several businesses. Doctors at the Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital can't perform surgeries and patients at a nursing home can't bathe in or drink the water.

In addition, the health department has prohibited restaurants from serving sit-down meals because customers can't wash their hands. Beauty shops are also closed because beauticians can't wash their clients' hair.

"You can get by without electricity," Craft said. "You can light candles and wrap blankets around you to keep warm. But try getting by without water."

County officials also bused 70 inmates at the Whitesburg jail to facilities in Pike and Harlan counties because of the water problems, Jailer Don McCall said.

"Lord have mercy, it's a major, major problem," Craft said. "The only thing we can do is to ask people to be patient with us. This is not a problem we created. It was just dumped in our laps."