Ice complicates oil cleanup. But projects are underway to connect `dry' districts with neighbors who have secure water supplies
Pittsburgh — Cleanup crews are battling ice and continuing flows of contamination in their efforts to stem one of the worst inland oil spills in United States history. Brown ooze is still seeping into the river from the site of the huge oil tank that collapsed over the weekend, sending 1 million gallons of toxic diesel fuel coursing down the Monongahela River.
Meanwhile, subzero overnight temperatures spread ice over more than half the surface of the river, hampering collection efforts.
``I've worked on lots of spills before - but never anything like this,'' said Vincent Fustos, a young cleanup worker as he surveyed the mess on a stretch of river that goes through downtown Pittsburgh.
Reaching over the side of the boat, he plunges a gloved hand into the icy mix of slime and debris that has gathered behind a containment boom.
Moving out into the current, he uncoils a long snake into the water that looks like the world's widest roll of paper towels. The roll drinks up oil splotches as they float downriver.
The floating barrier is just one layer of defense in the fight against the spill. Other barriers are strewn up and down the river. Some are simply plastic barricades that dangle a foot below the surface, catching oil that can then be vacuumed up. The icing of the river is especially troublesome, since heavy icing makes routine oil-recovery methods ineffective. The oil flows with the current under the ice, bypassing barriers and absorbent materials set out to catch it.
``The biggest problem is that you can't see the stuff under the ice,'' says Lt. John Farthing, a spokesman for the US Coast Guard, which is overseeing the cleanup along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Coast Guard officials say they don't know the source of the oil that is still seeping from the accident site. Yesterday, cleanup crews put up a permanent boom to catch the runoff.
Meanwhile, cleanup operations continue around the clock, and officials say the situation remains precarious. Traces of oil have been found as far downstream as West Virginia, and some worry that mild contamination could work its way much farther down the river system. The Monongahela empties into the Ohio River at Pittsburgh.
The disaster began last weekend, when a fuel tank owned by Ashland Oil Company collapsed 20 miles upstream from Pittsburgh. A containment dike wasn't able to hold back the whole surge, which spilled over while the tank was being filled.
The oil company has taken full responsibility for the cleanup - hiring a number of contractors that specialize in such operations. The EPA, however, has set up a $100,000 emergency fund, which would become available if Ashland falters.
Life hasn't been the same here since the accident, for emergency workers or the people of the region.
Local communities that draw drinking water from the contaminated rivers have scrambled to find alternatives. Drastic conservation measures are in effect in more than 80 communities, and taps have gone dry in several towns. However, one district that had stopped drawing from the Monongahela resumed taking water from the river after tests were run.
In the meantime, shoppers are scarfing up all available bottled water. Others are lining up to lug home water from neighborhood ``water buffaloes'' - huge tanker trucks lined with spigots.
Local residents are taking the disaster in stride, says Todd Nelson, another Coast Guard spokesman.
``At all levels of emergency response, people are pulling together,'' he says. ``We've even had people coming into our office asking if they could help clean birds.'' There's also a new radio hit - ``Pittsburgh's Dirty Water'' - based on the Standells' 1966 classic, ``Dirty Water.''
But the going has been rough.
Many schools and businesses have shut down to conserve water. A sign on a washroom door in one restaurant reads: ``Use only in emergency.'' Diners are served on plastic and paper.
It's too early to estimate the full economic impact of the spill, say officials.
Cleanup operations have snarled traffic on the normally busy river. Manufacturing companies that need steady streams of pure water have been especially hard hit. The local Pepsi-Cola plant, which uses about 300,000 gallons a day, was one of the first plants to close.
Meanwhile, some communities are finding that they can move mountains - when they really need to.
On a snow-dusted hillside in suburban Moon Township, for instance, a work crew is putting in a water pipeline that has been pondered for years. Crews started on the task Tuesday morning, worked through the night, and expected to have water flowing to the neighboring community of Robinson Township sometime yesterday.
``We're not affected by the spill, because we have wells,'' said Richard Zollinger, manager of the Moon Township municipal authority, as he paused by a blazing smudge pot to warm his hands. ``So this [pipeline] is one way we can help out.''
In other parts of the city, similar projects are hurriedly under way to connect troubled communities with neighbors who have more secure water supplies. Pittsburgh itself was spared the direct impact of the spill, because it draws water from the Allegheny River.
A wildlife rescue program is also under way. Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission officials are patrolling the river, picking up and cleaning stranded birds.