Time, distance and uncertainty over water samples taken from the North Fork of the Kentucky River contributed to Whitesburg area residents being without clean, safe water for nearly a week.
A “non-consumption water advisory” was issued November 1 preventing customers of the Whitesburg Municipal Water System from using water for anything other than flushing commodes after some customers reported smelling gasoline in their water and petroleum products were found seeping into the river at Ermine, about one mile above the intake to the city’s water plant.
“You can’t be too cautious,” said Allison Fleck, communications director with the Kentucky Division of Water (DOW). “Whenever there is a suspicion of anything harmful you shut it down. There was just no knowledge early on how much had seeped until testing determined that.”
Sandy Gruzesky, DOW director, said every precaution was taken to protect the public from harmful contaminants.
“Considering the nature of the pollutant source, it was appropriate to suspend water production and distribution until test results demonstrated the problem was solved and no contaminants remained in the water,” said Gruzesky.
Fleck said one delay occurred because early water samples weren’t treated like “evidence” that could be used to determine if and what contaminants were actually in the North Fork of the Kentucky River, the source of Whitesburg’s water. She said the chain of custody had been broken in getting the first batch of water samples to Frankfort for testing. Fleck said the samples were inadequate and it was unclear where exactly the samples were collected.
It also took a considerable amount of time to do the normal second round of testing, Fleck said.
Fleck said it took about five hours to collect 20 water samples at various locations near the water intake November 5. Those samples were driven to Frankfort and tests were conducted on those samples all day on November 6.
Fleck said testing was done to see if hydrocarbons associated with petroleum products were found in those water samples.
“We did not find them in any kind of levels that are mentionable,” said Fleck.
On Thursday at about 6 p.m., DOW lifted the water consumption advisory after the second round of water samples indicated the water did not contain contaminants that exceeded personal exposure limits or drinking water standards.
The DOW consulted with the Kentucky Department for Public Health to reach the decision to clear use of the water for drinking and all other purposes.
As water use resumed, consumers were being advised to flush pipes for several minutes if they detect an unusual odor to the water. If the odor persists, they should contact their water company for assistance.
“Taste and odor are not harmful, but chemicals in the water are,” said Fleck.
The DOW issued a release Friday advising residents to throw away any food and drinks prepared before the advisory was issued.
The Kentucky Environmental Response Team was activated to respond to the emergency and cleanup efforts at the site of the petroleum seepage are continuing.
Fleck said an investigation into the source of the petroleum leak is underway but said the DOW will not release the name or names of anyone believed responsible for the spill until after the investigation is complete.
“It’s a matter of legality that cannot be discussed until whatever violation is issued,” said Fleck.
Guy Delius, director of the Division of Public Health Protection and Safety at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said he supported the decision to lift the advisory.
“We worked with the Division of Water and the Division of Environmental Services to review the sample results and remove this advisory as quickly as possible,” said Delius. “Our first priority has always been the health of our citizens.”
The DOW says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through the Safe Drinking Water Act, has established pollutant-specific criteria for public water systems.
When a problem is detected, immediate testing and retesting requirements go into effect along with public notification that consumption has the potential of serious adverse effects on human health as a result of short-term exposure, according to the DOW.
A consumer advisory is issued when there is a possibility that consumption of water produced by a water treatment plant may be harmful to human health.
Fleck said the non-consumption water advisory placed in the Whitesburg area is believed to be only the second of its kind in the modern history of Kentucky, saying the petroleum spill at Ermine “was a complete disregard to environmental safety.”
“It’s certainly more rare than a boil water advisory,” said Fleck. “Boil water advisories are common.”
Fleck said the DOW would continue to monitor the Whitesburg water system on a daily basis until the site is “completely remediated.”
Whitesburg Mayor James W. Craft said water customers in the Whitesburg area don’t need to worry about the problem reoccurring.
“This kind of thing will not happen again,” said Craft.
Craft said that given the length of the non-consumption advisory, “all in all people were very understanding. They never blamed us and never got out of hand with us.”
Responding to complaints about a lack of information concerning the non-consumption advisory, Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward said, “we couldn’t inform the people because we didn’t have any information to inform them. The only thing we could go by is what the DOW told us. We didn’t even know any of the results of the tests.”
Craft said he is just glad that the system is up and going again.
“You can drink the water,” said Craft. “It’s safe across the board.”