WHITESBURG — For the third time in less than three years, Childers Oil in Whitesburg has been tied to pollution that shut down the city's water system.
Residents smelled petroleum in their tap water Saturday morning, and the municipal treatment plant was shut down immediately. On Monday, after testing and searching all weekend, officials determined that diesel fuel had leaked down a ditch line from the Childers Oil bulk plant upstream from the water treatment plant, said state Division of Water spokeswoman Allison Fleck.
Workers drilled concrete at the plant Monday afternoon, trying to determine precisely which pipe or tank was leaking.
"It was a minuscule amount," Childers Oil owner Don Childers told the Herald-Leader on Monday. "We're working on it. We haven't pinpointed a source. For all we know, it could have been (someone else) dumping in the ditch line."
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Childers Oil donated pallets of water to be distributed to customers of Whitesburg's water system.
"We would have done that whether it was our fault or not," Childers said.
Until two consecutive clean tests come from the water plant, the system's 1,300 customers are advised to have no contact with their tap water and use it only to flush toilets. Restaurants must use bottled water to wash dishes, floors and food.
Valentine's Day weekend menus underwent hurried changes Saturday, said Josephine Richardson, owner of the Courthouse Café.
"Such arrogance to not care about the community," she said Monday afternoon, referring to Childers.
Richardson said she went through 35 gallons of water for cooking, plus more to wash dishes and serve to customers, on Sunday night. She changed her menu to include roasted vegetables instead of steamed or boiled, and she had to stop serving pasta when she ran out of the water she had allotted for the dish.
The cost to businesses is a burden, she said, but the cost to public health is a worry as well.
"You can't account for the fear people feel," she said.
Richardson is party to a lawsuit against Childers Oil over petroleum product spills in October 2008 and February 2009. The company agreed in September to pay the state Energy and Environment Cabinet $500,000 to settle charges over the two spills.
Restaurants and businesses were shut down under Health Department guidelines then, but fewer have shut down this time, said Charles Colwell, owner of Las Peñas Mexican Restaurant.
He bought 60 gallons for one day's use after shutting down his restaurant for a few hours Sunday. On Monday, he picked up his allotted six gallons from City Hall.
"This time they've let us stay open. It's not as bad," Colwell said.
Health Department workers spent the weekend visiting businesses to make sure they were complying with orders to use bagged ice and bottled water, including for laundry and washing hands.
"As long as they can prove they are using potable water, they can stay open," said health department environmentalist Keven Nichols.
After the 2009 diesel spill, an upgraded carbon-feed filtering system was installed at the plant, operated by contractor Veolia Water. Company officials were not available Monday to answer questions about whether that system worked properly, said spokesman Matt Demo.
Fleck, from the state Division of Water, said Monday morning that the water plant's operation would be included in the state's investigation.