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Oil Spill Fouls River, Threatens Water for 750,000

January 4, 1988 GMT

WEST ELIZABETH, Pa. (AP) _ The collapse of a new storage tank poured an estimated 1 million gallons of diesel oil into the Monongahela River, threatening drinking water Sunday for 750,000 residents of suburban Pittsburgh.

″The problem is that this is so massive. It’s bank-to-bank from here to Elizabeth,″ Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Glen Cannon said in downtown Pittsburgh, more than 20 miles downriver from the broken oil tank.

One water intake on the river was closed to keep the oil out, raising fears that the reduced supply would mean some customers could go dry.


A pair of fire department pumper trucks was dispatched to connect Pittsburgh water lines to those of Western Pennsylvania Water Co., which serves two counties.

″The people may still be on low pressure, but ... they should have water coming through,″ said city water department spokeswoman Donna Sagmeister.

West Penn’s 750,000 customers in parts of Allegheny and Washington counties ″will still have to conserve,″ she said.

Pittsburgh draws its water from the Allegheny River, which was not affected.

Some oil leaked past floating booms and floated into the Ohio River, formed at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers at downtown Pittsburgh.

The smell of diesel oil wafted through communities along 20 miles or more of the river.

The Ashland Oil Co. tank was being filled, apparently for the first time, when it collapsed late Saturday afternoon for unknown reasons, said Ashland Oil spokesman Dan Lacy in Ashland, Ky. A dike around the tank failed to contain the oil.

The tank contained an estimated 3.5 million gallons of oil when it collapsed, said EPA spokeswoman Ann Cardinal.

″A million gallons at least″ entered the river, Cannon said.

Traffic on the heavily used Monongahela was halted, and adjacent rail lines and highways were temporarily closed.

″This is a massive clean-up effort. There are going to be people working on this for a month,″ said John Best, a member of Allegheny County’s hazardous materials team.

″How long before the river is clean and usable, I don’t know,″ said Ms. Cardinal. ″It is definitely a problem spill.″

Allegheny County’s hazardous materials team, private contractors, the Coast Guard and others helped stretch booms across the Monongahela to dam the floating oil. Specialized pumper trucks skimmed the oil from the surface, but downstream of the booms, greasy brown ribbons of oil meandered on a four-knot current into the Ohio.

All 750,000 customers of West Penn Water in about 60 communities in Allegheny County, surrounding Pittsburgh, and neighboring Washington County were asked to use tap water only when necessary.

The water company closed one Monongahala intake in advance of the approaching oil slick, leaving an intake serving a treatment plant upstream from the spill that cannot serve all West Penn’s customers, West Penn spokesman Greg McKelvey said.

″We have lost our supply quicker than we had thought,″ McKelvey said.

Pittsburgh is served by its own water department which does not draw water from the affected waterway.

About 1,200 residents of Jefferson Borough were told around midnight Saturday to leave their riverside homes. Authorities said they feared an explosion due to a gasoline leak, also at the Ashland terminal.

The evacuation order was lifted around noon Sunday after workers used a golf tee, rubber and tape to seal the gasoline leak in the elbow of a pipe. The leak was in a spot difficult to reach with tools, so the golf tee was pushed into the hole, rubber was packed around it and it was wrapped with duct tape, workers said.

″Everybody feels safe that there will be no explosion. The worst would be a puff of smoke and some small flames″ from gasoline fumes, said Robert Kroner, superintendent of Allegheny County police.

Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel visited evacuees Sunday in a shelter set up at a high school gymnasium.

″We’re going to have to work closely with the localities ... with the county, with the federal government to determine what kind of clean-up responsibilities are in order,″ Singel said.

″I’m sure we’ll pay the fair share if not all of it because we’re the primary party,″ said Ashland spokesman Lacy.

The diesel fuel odor might cause mild headaches and temporary nausea but was unlikely to cause respiratory or other more severe problems, said Pittsburgh Public Safety Department spokeswoman Margaret Rizza.