STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Hours after trucking in emergency drinking water, city officials said Friday that the federal Environmental Protection Agency apparently has found a way to purify Ohio River supplies poisoned by a massive spill of diesel oil.
Results from tests on the new filtration method were not expected until early today, and a state of emergency that closed schools and businesses and brought in National Guard water trucks remained in effect.
However, City Councilman John Metcalf expressed optimism that the area's 40,000 residents may scrape through a crisis that suddenly developed Thursday night when ice halted the oil slick's flow at the city's intake pumps on the Ohio.
"I think we're going to survive it," Metcalf said with relief.
But Ohio Lt. Gov. Paul Leonard, here to monitor developments, predicted in an interview that "problems will be with us for 30 to 40 days" as traces of the slick make their way to the Miss1769173865Mexico.
Water Has Oily Taste
"It will take a long time before people feel confident about their drinking water," he said, noting that earlier filtration steps here have produced a disagreeable oily taste, odor and feel in the water coming out of the tap.
As the crisis seemed to slacken here, the slick's leading edge arrived in Wheeling, W. Va., 112 miles downstream from an Ashland Oil Co. fuel holding tank that ruptured last Saturday, spilling a million gallons of diesel oil into the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. The spill flowed into the Ohio River and has threatened the water supplies of 2 million people from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati.
Wheeling, a city of 60,000, immediately shut down its pumping station and called on an abundant system of emergency supplies it had lined up in recent days. Water lines have been strung across bridges to two Ohio communities that draw from wells, and four barges were ready to ferry clean water from Wheeling Creek to the city's filtration plant.
Has 6-Hour Reserve
Wheeling has only a 6-hour reserve of its own, but officials figured the city could satisfy three-fourths of its needs with supplies from outside sources and citizen conservation efforts until the slick passes.
They had hoped to be able to treat the river water after the slick arrived. But Larry Schroeder, assistant city engineer, said the oil levels were too high for the water to be treated, and officials decided to "let that junk go down the river for someone else to treat."
Frazzled Steubenville officials thought they had dodged a crisis until ice formed in the Ohio River Thursday night, stopping the slick and building up heavy concentrations of oil that reached all the way to the bottom of the 33-foot-deep channel.
Using extraordinarily heavy doses of activated charcoal and bentonite clay, the city had treated 2 million gallons of contaminated water from the river and fed it into water towers. Despite the water's faintly oily nature, officials said it met federal safety standards.
But then the new concentrations caused by the slick's standstill overwhelmed the filtration system, preventing it from functioning. City Manager Bruce Williams proclaimed a state of civil emergency, closing schools and all businesses except food stores, gas stations and medical facilities Friday in a bid to step up conservation.
Want Slick to Move
City officials also pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from a dam upstream that would nudge the slick on down to Wheeling and this action appeared to have some effect Friday afternoon.
Most importantly, water quality experts from the Environmental Protection Agency were called in to improve the city's filtration procedures. Williams said the changes mostly involve injecting chemicals and a more potent type of activated charcoal at an earlier stage in the treatment process.
Councilman Metcalf said the city was way behind in replenishing water storage tanks, but if treatment could resume today, the crisis would pass.
City officials estimated Friday that the water system held little more than a day's supply.
Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste was pressuring federal agencies to "develop a plan for moving the slick more quickly down the river without seriously affecting barge traffic," Lt. Gov. Leonard said.
Celeste wants more water released at certain locks and dams, but there is a risk of making the pool of water between dams too shallow for barges, Leonard explained.
Officials 'Kind of Paranoid'
Metcalf said that Steubenville officials were "kind of paranoid" about the possibility that federal agencies, as part of the cleanup process, had rigged river water levels to stop the slick and "make us eat all the oil."
EPA spokesman Ray Germann denied knowledge of a plan to slow the river flow, but he noted that any slowing of the slick might allow oil particles that have been separated by churning to congeal, rise to the surface and be removed by cleanup crews using containment booms and vacuuming devices.