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Oil spill endangers water for thousands

JEFFERSON, Pa. -- Gov. Robert P. Casey put the National Guard on alert today to make emergency drinking water deliveries to hospitals and thousands of residents whose supplies are endangered by a 20-mile-long oil slick on the Monongahela River.

A utility that serves 750,000 customers in Pittsburgh was forced to shut down one of its two water pumping stations for fear of contamination from the 2 million gallons of diesel fuel and 20,000 gallons of gasoline that spilled Saturday from an Ashland Oil Corp. refinery.

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Officials pleaded with the public to conserve water and predicted outages in parts of large sections of the city today. Hospitals were alerted and officials considered closing schools.

'We've asked our public to please conserve water. Some of our storage tanks are empty,' said Robert Ross, vice president of Western Pennsylvania Water Co.

Ross predicted outages would affect about 4,000 residents in four sections of Pittsburgh.

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About 1,200 people were forced to evacuate Saturday because of fears the potentially explosive mix of diesel fuel and gasoline would ignite. They were allowed to return home Sunday after 12 hours when workers contained the spill with 4,000 feet of booms and began the cleanup with vacuum trucks. Officials said the work would take weeks and cost millions of dollars.

The diesel fuel spilled from an 80 percent full tank that collapsed at the Ashland Oil Corp. refinery. The gasoline gushed from a 1 million-gallon tank that was punctured by debris from the collapse.

The cause of the collapse was under investigation, but officials said they believe the bottom of the tank weakened. There had been no previous spills at the refinery, authorities said.

Ashland spokesman Roger Schrum said no fish kills had been reported, and utility officials said there were no reports of tainted drinking water. But Ross said the pumping station was closed while federal Environmental Protection Agency officials determined whether the water could be treated properly.

Gov. Casey placed the National Guard on alert to be ready to provide emergency water supplies. He also urged the governors of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and members of Congress to request that the EPA declare the accident 'a federal spill,' clearing the way for federal help in the cleanup.

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Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri ordered public safety workers to try to stop as much of the oil slick as possible at a point near downtown where the Monongahela meets the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Glenn Cannon said the oil spill stretched from bank to bank of the Monongahela.

'We've got a boom across the river that's underneath the Birmingham Bridge, and we're catching it as it comes down,' Cannon said. 'It skims the surface and builds up on the inside of the boom. Once we get a depth of the oil on top of the water we've got pumps that will skim it off the surface of the water into tank trucks and we'll transport it out of here.

'The size of the spill, the enormity of it, is just far beyond anything we we're ready for down here,' Cannon said.

Air bags and booms were used to encircle the remaining fuel on the ground to keep it from reaching the river.

The smell of diesel fuel could be detected as far south as Pittsburgh. Health officials said there was no immediate threat from the smell.

Authorities initially built a dike to try to contain the leaking gasoline, which when mixed with diesel produces highly explosive vapors. But the dike overflowed before a truck could suction off the gasoline and some 20,000 gallons of the fuel was released into the river.

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