Secret settlement with Childers Oil doesn't hold water

When a public agency penalizes a private company for polluting a public water supply, what part of the settlement should be secret?

If you answered "none," congratulations, you are correct.

But only because of Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate's intervention does the public know about a settlement between the state's environmental enforcement agency and a serial polluter of Whitesburg's water supply.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment was ready to keep the agreement secret. As The Courier-Journal's Tom Loftus reported, cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and "forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances" about even the settlement's existence.

Wingate rejected the request to keep the settlement secret.

Childers Oil agreed to pay $48,057. Of that, $23,057 covers the state's cost to respond to the February 2011 diesel spill that left Whitesburg Municipal Water customers without water for drinking or bathing for about four days. The remaining $25,000 is a penalty.

The 2011 spill was the third time a spill from Childers Oil had disrupted water service to the Letcher County seat of Whitesburg. About 7,500 customers — including clinics, schools and a hospital — were warned against drinking or bathing in the water for a total of 15 days in 2008 and 2009. The company paid $500,000, part of which went to pollution sensors and other improvements for Whitesburg's water plant.

A cabinet official told Loftus that agreeing to confidentiality was the only way to get Childers Oil to pay the latest settlement.

But secret agreements about such obviously public matters only undermine trust in government and its commitment to safeguarding our drinking water.

Environment and Energy Secretary Len Peters issued this statement Tuesday: "Unfortunately, our Cabinet did not handle this situation well. The most important part of this agreement is that the company cleaned up its contamination of the North Fork of the Kentucky River and was fined $25,000 in penalties. It was clearly not communicated well, but all aspects of the settlement agreement were and will remain available under Kentucky's Open Records Act."

This episode is one in a long line of occasions when Kentucky's environmental regulators should reflect upon whom they serve: the polluters or the public?