Whitesburg KY

Independent tests conducted on water

Independent tests conducted after the report of a petroleum spill at Ermine showed possible contamination in Whitesburg and Letcher County raw water supplies, but tap water tests were inconclusive.

The nonprofit watershed group Headwaters Inc. sent two sampling teams out on Nov. 6 to test water from the North Fork of the Kentucky River and from taps in the Whitesburg and Letcher County water systems. The teams took grab samples from three locations in the river and from seven taps between Blackey and Ermine. Tests for diesel range organics (DRO) showed no detections, but tests for gasoline range organics (GRO) showed low-level detections in two of three river samples and six of seven tap water samples. Both river samples that showed the presence of gasoline range organics were downstream of the contamination site. One was about a mile upstream of the Whitesburg Water Treatment Plant. The other was just upstream of the Blackey Water Treatment Plant, which supplies much of the Letcher County water system. A river sample taken upstream of the contamination site showed no detections of GRO or DRO.

According to the laboratory reports, samples for gasoline range organics in tap water were unreliable because the wrong sampling bottles were used for that test. The bottles and methodology were provided by the laboratory. Though the report says the bottles were incorrect for GRO sampling, a lab manager said only tap water samples should be affected. The raw water samples should be valid.

The report goes on to suggest that the detections for GRO in tap water samples may actually indicate the presence of trihalomethanes, chemical byproducts of the treatment process. THMs are formed by a chemical reaction between the chlorine used to treat water, and organic and inorganic compounds in the raw water. Those organic chemicals in the raw water could be hydrocarbons from a spill or compounds that occur naturally. THMs are often found in treated water, but are considered carcinogenic.

The tests were conducted solely to help residents make informed decisions about whether they should or should not use water from the public systems, and Headwaters has made no judgment about whether the water is safe.

Headwaters Inc. is not a regulatory body, and the tests conducted were not coordinated with any public agency. Headwaters is a nonprofit watershed group formed in 2006, primarily to work on water pollution and economic development issues in Letcher County. The organization usually tests for fecal bacteria, e.coli, heavy metals, pesticides and nutrients in conjunction with the Kentucky River Watershed Watch, Big Sandy Watershed Watch and Cumberland River Watershed Watch. It also monitors acid mine drainage sites in Letcher County. This is the first time the group has tested for hydrocarbons.

The Headwaters board of directors decided to conduct independent tests after Headwaters’ project coordinator was approached by several citizens about the Whitesburg water situation while surveying acid mine drainage sites with a technologist from the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands. Residents were concerned that no information about what was found in the water had been made available to the public.

Headwaters sought funding for the testing the next morning, and The Sierra Club Water Sentinels offered to pay lab fees for the testing. Several citizens in Letcher County also contributed to a fund for the water testing. The tests were conducted that same afternoon. Shortly after the samples were delivered to the laboratory, the Kentucky Division of Water lifted its water advisory for the Whitesburg system. No advisory had been put in effect for the Letcher County water system.

Any updates to the information Headwaters Inc. has will be made available on its blog at www.letcherwater.blogspot.com, or and on its web site at www.letcherwater.com.

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