Residents Hunt for Water as Oil Moves Downstream

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of suburban residents melted snow for drinking water and braved the cold to collect water from military tank trucks Tuesday as one of the worst river-borne oil spills on record stretched for 65 miles along two rivers.

However, the oil slick appeared to dissipate somewhat Tuesday, reducing threats to community water supplies from here to Cincinnati.

Shortly after an observation helicopter flight late in the afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Todd Nelson said: "The slick looks 100% better than yesterday."

The 1-million-gallon oil spill, created when a storage tank collapsed Saturday, was flowing down the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh and into the Ohio River. At least 83,000 people have been affected by cutoffs or diminishing supplies of water, and experts say there is a potential for 500,000 in the Pittsburgh area to be threatened if the crisis persists into next week.

Residents of the most threatened areas have depleted food stores' supplies of bottled water and have turned to soft drinks and Perrier.

"It's close to panicky, with people not being sure where their water will come from," said Joseph Facenda, an executive with the Giant Eagle supermarket chain.

Gov. Robert P. Casey declared a "disaster emergency" in parts of three affected counties and mandated "severe reductions" in water use for both citizens and private businesses.

In Pittsburgh, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was made ready for evacuees from the threatened suburban communities. Schools closed for 20,000 pupils and many businesses shut down over a wide area.

Still, Nelson said Tuesday: "All areas of the sheen (slick) are lighter. There's not as much oil on top of the river as there was."

"The mousse" on the water--a frothing mixture of oil, air and water--"was almost gone" he added. "The oil is still collecting in pockets on the river bank in many areas, which is good. It will help us to collect it."

"I'm optimistic. I feel that (water supplies near Pittsburgh) are close to being back on line. It looks like the 'Mon' (Monongahela) is close to normal," said Sam Harper, a water quality specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.

Guard Brings Tank Trucks

But in Robinson Township, a suburb in the hills south of Pittsburgh, the water supply ran dry. The National Guard brought in "water buffaloes"--tank trucks normally used in combat zones--to dispense water to residents who lined up with plastic jugs and other containers.

Robinson Township police radio dispatcher Betty Butya said: "People are getting very testy, because this is lasting too long. People who are calling are getting a little perturbed. They feel there should have been a backup . . . maybe two tanks with an emergency like this." The township only had one.

"I had to go all the way to Elliott several miles away just to take a shower at my daughter's house," she added.

In nearby Green Tree, water pressure was way down, and residents were storing water in bathtubs and making ice cubes as a method of storage.

"Kids are loading up plastic swimming pools with snow to be melted for drinking water," said Dennis Casey, spokesman for the Western Pennsylvania Water Co. and a resident of Green Tree, said. "We're not flushing toilets every time, and we're using paper plates and plastic utensils."

Misses Morning Shower

"I didn't take my usual shower this morning in an effort to conserve some of the water," Bill Cernawski of West Homestead, Pa., said. "I also left the breakfast dishes in the sink rather than washing them."

The main problem complicating cleanup efforts is that the oil, which at first was a gooey six-inch layer on the water surface, is dissolving into the water as it tumbles over dams and locks. Now it has been churned until it reaches as much as 18 feet below the surface. As it is churned, it emulsifies, making it more difficult to collect.

"This is causing water intake problems," Nelson said, for community water pipes, which only reach down as deep as 17 feet below the surface of the water.

Samples from the Monongahela River, Harper said, are being sent to a lab in Harrisburg to determine how far below the surface the contamination goes.

Casey, of the Western Pennsylvania Water Co., which supplies water from the Monongahela to 750,000 residents in suburbs south of Pittsburgh, said water outages were affecting 23,000 people in two communities. An additional 60,000 in six communities are experiencing lower water pressure and are in danger of running out.

Another 500,000 were potentially threatened if the crisis continues into next week.

Aided by Conservation

"Conservation is the only reason we've gotten through so far," Casey said. "People have responded incredibly."

He said communities were also scraping by because some had stored reserves in tanks and wells. The city of Pittsburgh, which takes most of its water from the Allegheny River, unaffected by the spill, was supplying some water to the western Pennsylvania system through hookups.

Cleanup efforts began Saturday. Floating booms were placed on the river and trapped some of the oil. But an undetermined amount got past the barriers.

The fragmented slick was moving at about 4 m.p.h. along the Ohio River and was expected to reach Steubenville, Ohio, today and Wheeling, W. Va. on Thursday. It was estimated parts of the spill could reach Cincinnati by Jan. 19.

Samples of the Ohio River were being taken every 15 minutes, a worker at the Steubenville water filtration plant said, adding: "When we get the smell, we'll shut down" intake of water from the river.

30-Hour Water Reserve

The city of 27,000 has only a 30-hour reserve of drinking water. In Wheeling, city officials also prepared to shut down intake from the river. However, officials believe the city would not face severe shortages because of storage supplies on hand and because of pledges from Ashland Oil Co.--whose tank it was that collapsed Saturday at its Floreffe terminal in West Elizabeth--to bring tanks of water on barges up the Ohio.

"I think Cincinnati will only have a taste and odor problem with their drinking water," Harper, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources official, said. Cincinnati and other cities along the Ohio appear to have efficient, modern filtration equipment to protect their supplies, he added.

A number of other problems faced officials and residents in the affected areas. "The biggest fear we have is the weather," Western Pennsylvania Water Co. spokesman Casey said. Temperatures have been hovering near zero during the daytime, he noted, adding: "The Mon could ice over and make the slick even more difficult to remove.

"Also water main breaks are routine this time of year," he said. "Most were built in the 1880s. If something breaks, we've got a nightmare."

Fear of Big Fires

"And if we have a big fire, we'd have to pump water like crazy, and that could compound the problem."

Pennsylvania state officials said the environmental threat to fish and wildlife was lessened because the spill occurred in winter, a time when many birds have migrated and fish are not in a spawning stage.

Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania State Game Commission called on sportsmen and other volunteers to help catch hundreds of threatened ducks. An oil spill can be deadly for mallards and geese, officials said, because when diesel fuel collects on feathers it breaks down their natural oils, which give protection from cold air and icy water. Experts have been flown in from Wilmington, Del., to teach volunteers how to wash the ducks with detergent.

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