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Unexpected Trouble With Pumps : Another City's Water Ebbs Despite Plans for Oil Spill

January 10, 1988|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WHEELING, W.Va. — City officials, who once boasted of elaborate plans to deal with an Ohio River oil slick menacing their water supply, said Saturday that unexpected problems had drained reserves to critically low levels for many of the area's 60,000 residents.

Duplicating recent scenes in communities upstream, businesses closed and citizens streamed to locations where emergency water was passed out--including water in tens of thousands of capped beer bottles donated by Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch Co.

With the city's riverside pumping station shut down, officials had counted on importing more than 4 million gallons a day on barges bringing water from nearby Wheeling Creek. But pumps transferring the water to a treatment plant broke down at first, then worked much more slowly than expected, delivering less than a million gallons by nightfall.

Fuel Tank Ruptured

The city, which normally uses 8 million gallons a day, had about a day's supply on hand when the slick arrived Friday afternoon in the seventh day of its journey from a ruptured fuel tank near Pittsburgh, Pa.

By late Saturday, a water reservoir that serves about half the city was nearly empty, Assistant City Manager Nancy Vapner said.

Compounding the problem, residents--who were originally led to believe that there would be no crisis--apparently conserved very little before officials began pleading for help. And as Rena Hupp picked up two cases of water-filled beer bottles, she vented her anger with city officials.

"We're really disgusted with (City Manager) Mike Nau," she said. "Every time he was interviewed on TV, he told us things would be OK. Then all of a sudden, whack--it's critical. We should have been stockpiling more . . . filling up garbage cans and bathtubs, getting kids to not do this and that."

A federal official, who asked not to be identified, said: "It appears that the best-laid plans have been torpedoed by reality."

Barges, Well Water

Officials were attempting to replenish reservoirs and water towers with emergency supplies not only from the barges, but also from a city well abandoned 25 years ago and from water lines strung across bridges to two Ohio communities serviced by wells.

Ashland Oil President Charles Luellen apologized to Wheeling residents. "We regret very deeply this accident. One other reason that we are here today is to see what more we can do. We can understand that people are very frustrated and angry. . . . But we regret that they are so angry and so frustrated that they sued us," he said, citing several lawsuits in the Pittsburgh area.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia National Guard sent in 15 truck-drawn water tanks, known as water buffalo. These were deployed to locations where residents could fill containers brought from home.

The state also sent in huge water tank trucks with backup supplies.

As the apparent crisis grew here, it subsided in Steubenville, Ohio, 19 miles upstream. Officials, believing that they have a safe new way to treat toxic diesel pollutants in the river, canceled a state of emergency that had closed schools and businesses. River intake pumps, restarted Friday after being shut down Thursday, continued operating at one-half capacity as voluntary conservation measures remained in effect.

Steubenville, previously best known as the hometown of singer Dean Martin and odds maker Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, "will get through this crisis as long as we don't overdo" water use, city official Cindy Anthill said.

Spill Reaches Bottom

The oil mass, which has been churned into the river from surface to bottom, is heavily concentrated from Steubenville to just south of Wheeling, said Ray Germann, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Slowed by ice formations, the slick was moving at less than 1 m.p.h. Wheeling officials were debating whether to try to treat the river water now, as drinking water dwindles, or wait until the worst concentration of contaminants passes.

Steubenville and two smaller communities upstream changed treatment procedures and pumped water while the slick was still present. But it is a risky thing to do, a federal official said, because no comprehensive standards for safe drinking water exist at the state or federal levels. The only federal standard applicable to the current spill restricts levels of cancer-causing benzene.

Oily Taste, Odor

Complicating the problem is the oily taste and odor that may accompany any water so treated, damaging consumer confidence in the water even if it is a healthful product.

"I may never drink that river water again," Rena Breiding said.

Pockets of oil stretch all the way up the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers to Jefferson, Pa., where a million gallons of diesel leaked from a 40-year-old Ashland Oil Co. tank that had been moved and reassembled without the necessary permit or normal testing procedures.

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