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Prayers Offered Too : Bottled Water and Humor Help Fight Oil Spill Battle

Times Staff Writer

From the pulpit at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. T. Scott Allen told chuckling parishioners Sunday that he and his wife had learned to conserve water by taking sponge baths and pouring the leftover liquid into the toilet tank.

“We pray for a quick end to this crisis,” Allen said, using the presence of a massive oil glob in the Ohio River here to preach the value of precious water and the meaning of Jesus Christ’s baptism.

He noted: “Last fall, there were floods (in the Ohio Valley). It’s either feast or famine, isn’t it?”

Things Looking Up

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Hours later, officials at City Hall next door said there was still a critical shortage of drinking water for 60,000 area residents, but things were looking up a bit.

Water levels that had fallen to only 3 feet in huge reserve tanks climbed back to 9 feet by nightfall Sunday. That was well short of the normal 22 feet--a day’s supply--but enough for Assistant City Manager Nancy Vapner to declare: “We feel optimistic.”

The levels rose after officials largely overcame problems that had slowed imports of emergency water supplies on barges and temporary pipelines from two towns in Ohio served by wells. The levels could shoot up faster soon, as the city appeared close to resuming large-scale pumping of water from the contaminated river.

Intake valves were closed when the long, poisonous glob of diesel fuel arrived Friday after being spilled Jan. 2 from a ruptured Ashland Oil Co. storage tank near Pittsburgh.

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Wheeling city engineers said Sunday that they reopened the intakes and successfully treated a small amount of river water that had been mixed with relatively clean supplies brought in on barges from nearby Wheeling Creek.

Conservation Urged

Despite rising optimism, officials urged many businesses to remain closed and struggled to convince citizens of the necessity of conserving water, although it ran out of spigots at normal pressure.

Residents generally shunned mobile water tanks taken to area fire stations by the West Virginia National Guard.

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Only two persons showed up to fill containers at a fire house next to the city’s almost completely shut-down water treatment plant.

“As long as people have water in their lines, they won’t pick it up here and they won’t save it either,” fire Capt. Mark Raper said.

At another station across town, firefighter Tony Bradley reported a similar situation.

“Upstairs, we’ve got drums full of water for ourselves, and we’re using paper plates and Styrofoam cups,” he said. “But we’ve only had a few people come in to get water” from the mobile tanks.

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‘Less Filling’ Than ‘Lite’

On the other hand, numerous residents continued picking up cases of bottled water donated by Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch. At a warehouse where more than 4,000 cases were passed out, an employee jokingly attributed the water’s popularity to the fact it was “less filling” than “Lite” beers usually appearing in the bottles and, contrasted with the foul river brew, “tastes great.”

West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., after a helicopter tour of the river Sunday, indicated that he would urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from dams to push the slick along faster.

Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste said Thursday that he planned to do the same thing, although he conceded that such releases of water could jeopardize barge traffic by making the river too shallow in places.

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“If the river is permitted to do its work, a self-cleansing process will be beneficial to us,” Moore said, expressing concern that drinking water crises await other communities along the river’s route, including Huntington, W.Va., and Cincinnati.

“However,” he added, “if the river is moving too slow it cannot do its work. It is almost like a stagnant pool.”

Less Than 1 M.P.H.

When the oil spilled into the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, and then flowed into the Ohio, it was moving at about 7 m.p.h. Now, slowed by ice formations and the regulation of water flows in the river’s lock and dam system, the slick is slithering along at less than 1 m.p.h.

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In its heaviest concentration, it stretches from near Steubenville, Ohio, to several miles below Wheeling, a distance of more than 20 miles.

The next threatened community is Sistersville, W. Va., a town of 2,200 located 50 miles downstream.

Sisterville’s mayor, Lester Leach, said that his biggest concern is having enough water on hand to battle any fires that might break out.

The city has filled up a swimming pool and Union Carbide Corp. has sent in five tankers containing 20,000 gallons of water apiece. Eight fire units from nearby communities are on standby with tanker trucks in case a major fire breaks out.

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