State officials on Tuesday afternoon lifted a water advisory issued four days ago to about 1,425 water customers in Letcher County.
The consumer advisory was issued by the Kentucky Department of Water (DOW) on Feb. 12 after diesel fuel was detected in the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
Allison Fleck, communications director with DOW, said the leak occurred at the Childers Oil Company bulk facility located at Pine Mountain Junction in Whitesburg, where a remote underground pipeline associated with an aboveground storage tank leaked because of “equipment malfunction.”
Childers Oil was making state-mandated improvements to the facility when an old line broke.
“If you have lines underground they will break,” said Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward. “They were trying to get all the lines above ground so they could monitor them better. When it leaked it went to the ditch line back in behind their lot. Then it made it from the ditch line to the river.”
Fleck said customers began calling Whitesburg Waterworks Saturday morning to report a petroleum odor in their tap water and a sheen of oil was detected on the river. Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft said the Whitesburg plant was shut down around 9 a.m. on Feb. 12 as a precaution. He said DOW officials were in Whitesburg by 1 p.m. taking water samples.
Fleck said the first round of water samples taken on Feb. 12 showed 75 parts per billion of diesel fuel detected at the plant. She said 50 parts per billion is the maximum amount allowed in the water system.
Fleck said Tuesday afternoon laboratory test results indicated “non-detectable” amounts of diesel fuel in the treated water using two consecutive days of analyzed water samples.
Childers Oil donated bottled water to residents affected by the water advisory. The water was distributed from Whitesburg City Hall and the Letcher County Recycling Center at Cowan. Save-A-Lot grocery in West Whitesburg also distributed free water.
Areas under the non-consumption water advisory included about 1,300 Whitesburg water customers and 125 county customers in Little Cowan, Dry Fork and part of Sandlick. It marked the third time in two years the DOW has issued a non-consumption advisory for Whitesburg water customers because of diesel fuel being detected in the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
“It’s not been the same thing every time. The end result is the same,” said Ward. “We are a lot more prepared.”
A petroleum-like odor was reported at the Whitesburg water plant on Nov. 1, 2008 and a consumer advisory was in effect for five days restricting water use to sanitary flushing. The state said investigators found a possible source of the contamination on property owned by Childers Oil Company and said oil was found seeping from a plastic lined pit on the riverbank.
Fleck said in 2008 the amount of hydrocarbons found in the water samples were “almost not even detectable,” but said the DOW has “refined testing equipment” that detected .0005 parts per million of toluene and xylene.
She said the acceptable amount of toluene is 1 part per million and the acceptable amount for xylene is 10 parts per million. (One part per million is equivalent to one drop of water diluted into 13.2 gallons.)
On February 16, 2009, diesel fuel was found seeping into the river at Mayking. That diesel fuel leak was believed to have occurred on property owned by Childers Oil after an old underground storage tank was hauled to the site, located on land formerly owned by CSX Railroad, and rolled onto its top sometime after being unloaded on February 13, 2009. Fuel that had been left in the bottom of the old convenience store tank apparently escaped through a lid or a vent and into a ditch leading to the river. Fleck said tap water samples taken in February 2009 showed 100 to 200 parts per billion of diesel fuel was detected in the water distribution system.
During that spill about 4,000 water customers were advised not to use their water for anything but flushing a toilet for 10 days. Ward said about a third of the number of customers were affected this time because most of the county’s customers now receive water from the Knott County Interconnect which pulls water from Carr Creek Lake.
“Had we not had the Knott County Interconnect in, it would have affected all of our county customers,” said Ward. “That’s the good thing about using different sources.”
Craft said the water plant was shut down sooner this time and not nearly as much diesel fuel got out in the distribution system as did two years ago.
Craft said new filters were installed last year and he is looking into purchasing two hydrocarbon sensory systems to sense hydrocarbons in water which will sound an alarm if hydrocarbons are coming into the water system. Craft said it would cost $150,000 to install one system right at the intake and one upstream from the plant.
“We’re going to try to go to work now and get the hydrocarbon sensory system,” said Craft.
Fleck said investigation continues and remediation of the contaminated site is underway. Fleck said Whitesburg Waterworks will continue to monitor the water intakes and maintain the activated carbon units to effectively treat the source water.
“We just play the hands we are dealt,” said Craft. “We did the best we could under the circumstances. It all worked out.”
In October 2010, Childers Oil and its sister company, Mountain Rail Properties, agreed to pay the state $500,000 to settle a lawsuit over the two earlier spills. That agreement was reached about four months after the Division of Water announced it would not cite EQT natural gas company for a spill of about 900 gallons of motor oil into Linefork Creek in Letcher County.
That spill, which was caused by a malfunctioning part at a station used to compress natural gas for transport, created a sheen on Linefork Creek, about a half mile from the North Fork of the Kentucky River.