An Eastern Kentucky businessman has been cited for a string of violations after oil waste from his property leaked into Letcher County's water supply, prompting a weeklong advisory that shut down businesses and kept residents from drinking and bathing in the county's tap water.
Don Childers, the owner of Childers Oil Inc. in Whitesburg, was cited after investigators found oil seeping from a plastic-lined pit on his property into the North Fork of the Kentucky River, about a mile from the Whitesburg water plant's intake, said Allison Fleck, spokeswoman for the state division of water.
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The company allegedly put down the plastic at a construction site off U.S. 119 South, and then dumped the sludge — an oil waste mixture — on top of it. The oil ate through the lining and leaked into the river, Fleck said.
Childers, who owns dozens of gas stations in Eastern Kentucky and Virginia, did not return phone messages left by the Herald-Leader on Monday.
"He put us all in danger, probably just to save a buck, and I'm sure he is a millionaire over and over again," said Sheila Adams, 50, of Whitesburg, who heated bottles of water so her two teenage daughters could get ready for school last week.
She said the effects of the contamination are still being felt. Residents have been advised to do such things as flush hot water heaters and change filters on their refrigerators before using the water. A new filter cost her and her husband, a coal miner, $40.
"That may not be a lot of money to him, but we've got two children and that money means a lot for us," Adams said. "This whole thing has put a lot of hardships on us."
Childers could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each violation issued on Nov. 7 by the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection.
The violations include: degradation of surface water, failure to obtain a pollutant discharge permit, unauthorized release of a petroleum product into waters, disposal of waste at an unpermitted facility, failure to notify officials of a petroleum release and endangering the public welfare.
Enforcement officials say their next step is to set up a meeting with Childers to find out why the contamination occurred.
"This was not an acceptable means to dispose of this kind of waste," Fleck said. "He just created his own waste spot by the river without a permit, putting the public in danger."
Officials found the leak on Childers' site after residents called Nov. 1 complaining that their water smelled like gasoline.
State and local officials quickly shut down and then cleaned the water plant, which serves about 2,000 residents throughout Letcher County.
At the site of the leak, officials dug a trench to intercept the oil flow and removed contaminated soil.
An advisory was issued on Nov. 1 asking residents not to consume the water or use it for anything other than flushing toilets while they waited for tests results to ensure the water was safe. The advisory wasn't lifted until Nov. 6.
In the meantime, Letcher County was in "absolute pandemonium," Whitesburg Mayor James Craft said.
The health department prohibited restaurants from serving sit-down meals because customers couldn't wash their hands, and beauty shops closed because beauticians couldn't wash their clients' hair. Inmates at the local jail where taken to facilities in nearby counties.
Childers, along with other local businesses, including Wal-Mart and Save-A-Lot, distributed free water to residents.
"It was terrible," Adams said.
"Don Childers knew it was supposed to be taken care of the right way," she said.