Whitesburg KY

Frustration mounts as days go by

Many Letcher County residents and public officials were waiting anxiously this week for permission to once again use their water for something other than flushing a toilet.

“We are just going to have to wait it out,” said Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft, adding that he sympathizes with residents frustrated by the number of days the non-consumption advisory has remained in place.

“I’m as frustrated about it as they are,” said Craft. “We ask them to continue to bear with us.”

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward said he had just finished drinking a large glass of water while having breakfast, which also included coffee made with water treated by the Whitesburg waterworks, when he learned the water advisory had been issued.

“So to anyone who may have consumed the water before the advisory was issued, I’m right there in the boat with you,” Ward said.

“All of us are frustrated that this is continuing — the schools, the medical facilities and all people that this has affected,” Ward added. “We can’t wash our clothes, can’t shower and have to cook out of gallon jugs. It’s been an extreme burden on the people and we’ve already had the patience of Job, so I’m hoping we’ve got it in us to last this out a few more days.”

Letcher School Supt. Anna Craft said the continuing advisory has placed a hardship on the school system as well. The school district has continued to hold classes, but has had to place hand-washing stations in six of its schools and serve lunch on paper plates. Craft said water from an outside source has been brought in to use for washing dishes and floors.

Craft said all schools in the district have missed 18 days, with Beckham Bates Elementary missing even more days — 22. She said some of those days were missed because of a similar water problem in November. Craft said the attendance rate dropped when the non-consumption advisory was first issued, but has since stabilized.

“Do you have school with low attendance or do you miss more school?” Craft asked. “It’s a real pickle.”

Restaurants have also been serving customers on disposable plates with plastic utensils, according to Anthony Garrett, senior environmentalist with the Letcher County Health Department. Restaurants must also have a potable water source in rest rooms along with hand-sanitizing gels.

State and local officials say that hauling water and using paper plates is a small price to pay compared to health problems that could result from exposure to water contaminated with diesel fuel.

“From what I read, and what I get from Poison Control, the effects of the diesel fuel in the water system depends on the concentration of the diesel fuel,” said Sheila Hogan, lead nurse at the Letcher County Health Department. “The effect of the diesel fuel may not cause any ill effects, depending on the concentration. Then again, it could cause nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. Diesel fuel is not well absorbed by the digestive system and may act as a laxative. If diesel fuel is aspirated, it can cause aspirate pneumonia. The vapors from diesel fuel can cause headaches, narcotic effects, cancer, and kidney damage if inhaled for long periods of time.”

Hogan said people who have concerns about their exposure to the contaminated water should call their health care provider or the Poison Control at 1-800- 222-1222.

Allison Fleck, communications director with the state Division of Water, said diesel fuel can be consumed into the body by three ways — by drinking it, by inhaling it from mist generated by a shower, or by contact with skin.

The non-consumption advisory also resulted in 28 kidney patients who normally receive dialysis in Whitesburg being sent to other locations for treatment.

Alia Mahi, a spokeswoman with the DaVita dialysis center located at the Whitesburg hospital, said the patients are being sent to facilities in Pikeville and Paintsville for dialysis treatment.

“We have patients that depend on this for their lives,” said Mahi. “Water is essential.” Mahi said patient safety is DaVita’s utmost concern and that water quality standards that apply to water used for dialysis treatment require a much higher level of chemical and microbial purity in comparison to water declared fit to drink.

“We have to provide a safe environment for our patients,” said Mahi. “It is crucial and we will make sure we do that. We don’t take any chances.”Mahi said it is unknown when patients will be able to receive dialysis treatments again at the Whitesburg location. Mahi did say that if the water can be determined to be safe by DaVita’s high standards, then the dialysis center will eventually continue to operate at its Whitesburg location.

Ward said that until the advisory was lifted the county would continue distributing free drinking water each night until 10 at the Colson Senior Citizens Center, Cowan Recycling Center, Letcher Fire Department and the county garage at Mayking. Ward said the water was donated for distribution by Childers Oil and by Walmart. Free water was also being distributed at Whitesburg City Hall each night until 10 p.m.

Communities that remained under the non-consumption advisory in addition to Whitesburg were Black Bottom, Craft’s Colly, Cowan, Camp Branch, Doty Creek, Isom, Jeremiah, Little Colley, Mayking, Sandlick, and Spring Branch.

Updates on the water advisory are being posted on the county government’s web site at www.letchercounty.ky.gov.

Leave a Reply