Saturday, October 21, 2000

Ashland officials prepare for worst

Swimming pools eyed for emergency water

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ASHLAND, Ky. — Scrambling to protect their water supply, Ashland city officials spent more than $100,000 this week on barges, pipes, water-quality tests and consultants.

        Similar headaches may be in store for cities closer to Cincinnati if the coal waste threatening Ashland flows into the Ohio River without dilution.

[photo] Bill Cremeans, an aquatic biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, prepares a multi-parameter probe to take river water readings along the Big Sandy River near Zelda, Ky., on Friday. The probe measures the water's temperature, oxygen density, conductivity, pH and turbidity.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        “We believe it's treatable,” said Jim Johnson, assistant superintendent of Newport's Waterworks, in Ashland collecting samples Friday.

        Mr. Johnson took a boat 5 miles up the Big Sandy River to collect water samples that were being tested in Northern Kentucky late Friday, but he said he would return to retest the water as the spill moves downriver.

        The plume of coal waste is another 75 miles upriver, so Mr. Johnson says he will need to return in a week to retest.

        So far, not one drop of Ashland city water has been affected by the sludge, now stuck in the Big Sandy River. But if contaminated water moves 10 miles downstream to the city's treatment plant, Ashland will be ready, officials say.

        Engineers Friday were testing the plant's ability to remove the pollution. Consultant Brent Tippey was hopeful: Based on his tests, the dirty water appeared to contain clays and metals similar to those normally handled by the plant.

        But just in case, eight barges are on standby to ship in clean water. If that doesn't work, the National Guard has 270,000 containers of drinking water to distribute.

        “We had to take out special insurance on the barges in case we sink 'em,” said Ashland city engineer Steve Corbitt.

        As city manager Bill Fisher put it, “A barge full of water on the Ohio River is usually called “sunk.'”

        Coal sludge from Kentucky mines has contaminated creeks before, but never a major river. Given the unusualness of the disaster, officials have been improvising responses as they go.

        Ashland officials are prepared to drain three swimming pools to fight fires if necessary.

        While government officials keep a wary eye on the sludge, manufacturing companies are experiencing its effects.

        The Marathon-Ashland Petroleum Co. operates a medium-sized oil refinery at Catlettsburg. It uses 7,500 gallons of water a minute from the Big Sandy River, says spokesman Bob Sovine.

        On Monday, the plant was forced to reduce output, but by the next day, alternative water sources had been cobbled together.

        Barges carrying 840,000 gallons each are running continuously from the Ohio River to the refinery, Mr. Sovine said.

        One of the company's oil pipelines has been converted to bring in clean water, and some contaminated water is being purified.

        “We're prepared to do it indefinitely,” Mr. Sovine said gloomily. “This is very costly for the refinery.”

        Down the Ohio, AK Steel officials wonder whether they will face similar expenses. They're planning alternatives if water from the Ohio becomes unusable, spokesman Alan McCoy said.

        The company's steel plant on the Kentucky side of the river uses about 20 million gallons of water a day, he said.

        “The greatest effect now is from lack of information about what this could do or might do,” Mr. McCoy said.

Drinking water along Ohio River safe for now
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