Water unfit for drinking in Letcher

The word was spreading in Letcher County on Monday: It's not safe to drink the water. Again.

There was an oily sheen on the North Fork of the Kentucky River, and even water coming out of the treatment plant smelled of diesel fuel.

"The only (safe) thing to do with the water is to flush toilets," said Kevin Nichols, Letcher County Health Department environmentalist who was one of several people calling restaurants and other businesses to get the word out, starting about 10 a.m. Monday.

The state Division of Water's emergency response team visited the water treatment plant earlier in the morning, detected a "fuel odor" in the water and issued a non-consumption advisory, said Allison Fleck, a spokeswoman for the agency.

That means "city water" customers in a dozen affected areas should not drink, shower with or use the water for cooking. Free water was being passed out at four distribution areas.

Water from the river and from the treatment plant is being tested in laboratories. But there was no word late Monday about what caused the odor or when the water would be safe to drink.

Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward noted that residents had faced a similar problem in November. He said he was determined to find the cause of the current problem.

"The people of Letcher County should be able to wake up in the morning and make their coffee without wondering whether or not their water is safe to drink," he said in a statement.

At the Courthouse Cafe in downtown Whitesburg, workers had to buy bottled water and ice. It was an inconvenience, co-owner Laura Schuster said.

"But the bigger picture is the residents at large ... their general health," she said. "If you don't hear about it on the radio, how do you find out?"

State and local officials started getting calls Sunday about a diesel odor in the water.

The water plant was checked about 11 p.m. Sunday, and no problems were found, Fleck said. But a recheck Monday morning found the odor.

The county's water supply was shut down for a week in November after people started noticing an odor.

Investigators found sludge — an oil and water mixture — had been leaking into the North Fork from Childers Oil Inc. The company's owner, Don Childers, was cited.

The sheen noticed Monday is about four miles upriver from Childers Oil, Fleck said.

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