Tests confirm diesel in Letcher water

A local businessman is responsible for a diesel-fuel leak that contaminated the water supply that serves Whitesburg and much of Letcher County, the state Department for Environmental Protection charged Friday.

The state issued a notice of violation to Don Childers, owner of Childers Oil Inc. The Whitesburg company owns dozens of gas stations.

The citation charged Childers with a number of environmental violations, according to a news release: endangering the public welfare; degrading surface water; failing to obtain a permit to discharge pollutants; unauthorized release of petroleum product into public waters; disposal of wastes at a site with no permit; failing to notify regulators of a release of petroleum; and failure to implement a plan to protect groundwater.

Childers could be fined up to $25,000 a day per violation, according to a news release from the department.

Friday's notice of violation is the second in recent months against Childers. The state cited him in November after oil leaked from one of his properties into Whitesburg's water source, forcing a weeklong advisory against drinking the water.

The state hasn't yet proposed a fine in that case.

There is also a criminal investigation of the November leak, state officials have confirmed.

The latest leak began last weekend. On Feb. 16, state inspectors confirmed reports of an oily smell at the Whitesburg water-treatment plant and issued an advisory against using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing or washing clothes.

Flushing toilets has been the only authorized use for the water since. The outage has affected an estimated 3,000 households in Whitesburg and parts of Letcher County served by the city system.

Residents in the affected areas have made do this week using gallon jugs of water distributed through the city and county — some of it donated by Childers.

"It's not a very pleasant thing" to be without water, said Ryan Adams, a state-police dispatcher who lives in Letcher County.

Inspectors pinpointed the leak at a spot beside the North Fork of the Kentucky River, 4 miles upstream from the city water plant, where Childers stored large petroleum-storage tanks. Damaged tanks leaked diesel fuel into the river, according to the state.

The site is being cleaned up, according to a news release.

State and local officials said early in the week that the leak into the river had been contained. The state has been sampling the water in the Whitesburg system all week. The non-consumption advisory will be lifted as soon as test results show the water is safe, the Division of Water said Friday.

Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward said he is expecting two sets of test results Saturday.

He had expected the first test results Friday afternoon. However, a state official told him Friday the findings wouldn't be available until early Saturday, Ward said.

Another set of results could be available Saturday afternoon, Ward said. The state Division of Water wants to analyze two sets of test results to double-check the water's safety.

Ward said if everything goes as local officials hope, the advisory could be lifted Sunday. Ward said that as soon as tests confirm the water is safe, workers will flush the lines, which could take about four hours.