Wheeling Fills Tanks as Oil Crisis Eases

Times Staff Writer

City officials, saying that the worst of a massive but thinning oil glob has moved down the Ohio River, lifted a state of emergency Monday and resumed full-scale pumping from the river.

City water tanks, drained almost empty Saturday, were filled by Monday night, Assistant City Manager Nancy Vapner said.

Officials continued to urge the area's 60,000 residents to conserve water, but they stopped importing emergency supplies and told the National Guard that mobile water tanks no longer are needed.

Shutdown Expected

The Guard's truck-drawn tanks, called water buffaloes, may be sent next to Sistersville, W. Va., a small community 47 miles downstream where the slow-moving diesel fuel is expected to shut down river pumping operations in a few days.

A federal water quality official predicted that Sistersville's 2,200 residents could wait out passage of the toxic mass with emergency water supplies brought in by barges and tanker trucks.

Moreover, the official, who requested anonymity, said the oil glob was losing concentration and probably would not create drinking-water crises for cities farther downriver--Parkersburg and Huntington, W. Va.; Ashland, Ky., and Cincinnati.

Serious Shortages

Ashland is the home of Ashland Oil Co., one of whose fuel storage tanks collapsed near Pittsburgh on Jan. 2, spilling a million gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela River. The slick flowed into the Ohio River and created serious, though temporary, drinking-water shortages in suburban Pittsburgh; East Liverpool, Toronto and Steubenville, Ohio, as well as here in Wheeling.

"We're seeing lesser concentrations of oil than we did two and three days ago, when the river was almost stagnant," the federal official said. "And where the concentrations have popped up, they have not been as long."

He said problems intensified when the mass reached Steubenville last Thursday because of unusually cold weather. Near-zero temperatures deterred evaporation of the oil and formed ice that helped slow movement of the slick to less than 1 m.p.h., building up its concentration.

Slowly Dissipating

Temperatures have warmed somewhat in recent days and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released water from dams on the Ohio, pushing the slick along faster and diluting it. Also, the official said, components of the oil are biodegradable and it is slowly dissipating through natural processes.

To survive a two-day shutdown of the Wheeling river pumping station, officials had to overcome major obstacles.

They had lined up four barges to shuttle water from relatively clean Wheeling Creek to the city's filtration plant. But a pump transferring water from the barge tanks broke down and a new pump did not work as well as expected.

The city's water reserves fell rapidly. But citizens, who had been assured that imported supplies would be plentiful, were slow to take the crisis seriously and water tanks nearly emptied.

The crisis eased after businesses closed, people conserved more and frantic officials worked out a way to treat contaminated water.

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