Saturday, October 21, 2000

Drinking water along Ohio River safe for now

Heavy rain could pose dangers

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The nation's worst coal-sludge spill will not threaten drinking-water supplies in Ohio and Kentucky, initial data drawn from the Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers indicate.

        However, researchers from the Army Corps of Engineers stressed that a stream-flushing heavy rain or turbulence created by towboat propellers could force them to reconsider that prediction.


        “The Corps is working hard to determine what the effects will be,” said Maj. Ken Koebberling, deputy district engineer.

        The first sign that any of the coal slurry had reached the Ohio was the gray mixing with the green of the larger river.

        But Dr. George P. Kincaid, chief of the Corps water-quality section here, said the murky water may be the coal slurry stirred up on Big Sandy by towboat traffic.

        And having heard 90 minutes of technical data gathered and interpreted by his staff, he cautioned, “we are drawing no conclusions from that. We are speculating.”

        He said all the work by his field teams and analysts was only “a start at figuring things out.”

        The disaster began Oct. 11 when the weight of coal slurry broke through into a deep mine beneath the pond at the Martin County Coal Co. near Lovely, Ky., and leaked an estimated 210-250 million gallons of the coal-washing byproduct.

[photo] Coal-sludge spill is visible in this aerial photo where the Big Sandy River meets the Ohio River.
(Army Corps of Engineers photo)

    • What's in it? Heavy metals — including mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium — have been found in the residue.
    • How fast is it moving? “The spill has moved only 3 miles in two days,” said Rhonda Barnes of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state compact created in 1948 to monitor pollution in the Ohio River.
    • How does it move? Unlike an oil spill, in which the material floats on top of the water, the coal sludge turned about 70 miles of river into a lava-like fluid, said Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford.
    The material suspended in the water, in effect, became the water, Mr. Bickford said. Cleanup crews have tried vacuum trucks, makeshift dams using bales of straw as filters and skimming booms — all with limited success.
    “Petroleum ... can be skimmed; it can be "boomed,'” Mr. Bickford said. “This stuff is top to bottom, bank to bank.”
    What happens to living things? Wayne Davis, environmental section chief for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said officials are assuming the worst for fish and other aquatic life.
    “Because of the black water, we can't see the dead fish,” Mr. Davis said. “Wolf Creek, we assume, is a total loss.”

        “The water kind of spurted out both sides of the mountain,” said George B. Kincaid, chief of the Corps water-quality section here.

        The deadly sludge oozed into two creeks that feed the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy, suffocating wildlife in a thick black flow that sometimes was 10 feet deep.

        Friday, researchers from the Corps and the Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) tested more than 15 miles of the lower Big Sandy and concluded that the main body of the slurry had not reached the Ohio River.

        Their soundings and tests failed to find the downstream leading edge of the dense, heavy slug as it moved along the river bottom toward the Ohio about 60 miles from the failed slurry pond.

        “We haven't found anything that would be reason for alarm on the Ohio,” Dr. Kincaid said.

        Jim Leach, spokesman for Ohio EPA said “There are three (Ohio) cities that draw drinking water from the Ohio River — Ironton, Portsmouth and Cincinnati. At this point, the spill hasn't become an issue for Ohio cities. We continue to monitor the situation to determine if the spill will reach any of these areas.”

        Dave Woodburn, communications spokesman for Cinergy, said the company was not concerned there would be an effect on the its power plants.

        “The (coal sludge) spill isn't even on our radar screen at this point. We have no indication that it will create any problem for our water intakes. We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation, but indications are the spill will dissipate and not be a factor for us here.”

[photo] A dead carp in coal sludge along a stream in Inez, Ky.
| ZOOM |
        Cinergy power facilities on the Ohio River are Zimmer at Moscow, Beckjord at New Richmond, Miam Fort near the Ohio/Indiana border, and East Bend in Boone County near Petersburg.

        No one at the Corps was willing to predict when the leading edge of the main slug of slurry would reach the Ohio.

        Rather, they were busy trying to find it and studying currents in the Ohio to predict how the slurry might move once it reaches the larger river.

        Again, initial data indicated it would follow flow along the Ohio shore and deep in the main channel, well away from water intakes at Ashland and Russel, Ky.

        Similarly, sophisticated soundings showed the channel probably would shift back toward the Kentucky shore near Ironton, Ohio, and ease potential water-supply problems there.

        Even if more of the slurry reached those municipal and industrial intakes than anticipated, data collected this week suggested the threat would be well within what waterworks operators said was their ability to remove suspended solids routinely from river water.

        However, initial studies of the Ohio River currents this week produced sometimes contradictory and even suspect data, forcing Corps researchers to produce only carefully nuanced predictions during Maj. Koebberling's late-afternoon briefing.

        In the Tristate, those who make their living on the currents were calmly cautious. Mark Hemsath, assistant manager of Four Seasons Marina, Kellogg Avenue, on the Ohio River said he was getting information, but was not alarmed.

        “I talked with ORSANCO today. They said it won't get here for about 12 days “It's organic, and I understand it sinks. They (ORSANCO) also said it should disperse considerably before it gets here.

        “We have a floating drift barri er that we can put across the channel of this marina, but we don't know if that would make any difference. (ORSANCO) said it will be dissolved in the water before it gets to the Cincinnati area. We don't see any threat to pleasure craft in the water.”

        Corps researchers will be out in their boats again, possibly today, refining their research and renewing their search for the main body of the slurry in the Big Sandy.

        Meanwhile, there was confidence that the Corps normal operations of five flood-control reservoirs in the Big Sandy basin could continue uninterrupted, including a planned release of water from the John Flannagan to provide livelier rides for white-water rafters and paddlers over the weekend.

        That should not flush out enough sludge to cause downstream damage or hinder cleanup efforts led by the coal company and its contractors, said Jerry W. Webb, chief of the water resources engineering branch.

        A sudden flush from a heavy rain might change all of that and lend weight to fears about slurry backed up behind the old dam at Louisa on the big Sandy.

        No one knew how much was there or when it might be sucked out by cleanup crews, but there was suspicion among Corps water specialists that the dam might explain why they are having a hard time finding the downstream tip of the slug of slurry.

        Friday, the sludge was still so thick on the creek he inspected that Maj. Koebberling told his staff, “I threw a stick in there and the stick pretty much sat on top of it.”

        Not far downstream on the Big Sandy, Bill Asbury and his mother, Bonnie Rowland, watched the sludge seep past their riverside home in the hamlet of Burnaugh.

        Dependent on canned water because their well is suspect and the local treatment plant closed its gates to bar the slurry, Mr. Asbury contrasted the gray muck and river in which he has fished for years.

        Before Oct. 11, he could cast an artificial lure and “see it for three feet under the water,” he said. Now, everything in the river is dead or dying from lack of oxygen.

        Though water supplies in Ohio may not be affected, environmental officials say there will certainly be loss of wildlife — they're just not sure how much aquatic life will die.

        Nancy Westrick, a research specialist with the Center of Integrative Natural Science and Mathematics doing water pollution research and teaching an integrative science course at Northern Kentucky University, said, “It's moving very slowly, which isn't good. It would be almost better for people in that part of Kentucky to have the spill move on rather than move as slow as it is.

        “No one knows for sure how it will move down the river. How it affects fish in the river will depend on the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water from the spill. We've seen high turbidity here during the floods in the past years and the water-treatment facilities on both sides of the river were able to deal with it extremely well. (Turbidity is defined as how particulate matter in the water makes it cloudly, and to what extent.)

        The magnitude of the disaster — 210 million gallons of slurry spilled into creeks and rivers — is unique, Dr. Kincaid said. He and his colleagues are writing the book on how to respond as they assist the EPA's recovery efforts. Tim Thompson, district manager for Mine Safety and Health Administration District 3, headquartered in Morgantown, W.Va., which covers Ohio, said though coal mines and impound ponds are located in Ohio, it is unlikely a similar event could happen there.

        “There has never been anything like that (slurry spill) in Ohio. We have a number of impoundments in Ohio, some slurry and some water, but the topography is different than Eastern Kentucky. There may be some large ones, but they are all in relatively flat lands where they would not impact the surrounding area like the one in Kentucky.”

        Mr. Thompson said all of the Ohio coal mining is done in the area around St. Clairsville, across the river from Wheeling, W.Va., and the 10 counties in the immediate area, which is north and west of the Kentucky area around Ashland.

        Enquirer reporter Terry Flynn contributed.

        Ashland officials prepare for worst

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