Beckjord Plant diesel spill, impact reflects Ohio River's industrial legacy

Local water safe to drink; spill dangers constant

NEW RICHMOND, Ohio -- One local Ohio River researcher found reasons to be grateful as well as causes for ongoing concern after thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled seven miles upriver from Greater Cincinnati’s three water supply valves late Monday night.

The valves remain closed as the clean-up continues. Officials said regional water supplies never showed signs of contamination. The spill passed through downtown Cincinnati some time Tuesday morning.

Local, state and federal agencies responded quickly to the spill in part because several of them have headquarters in Cincinnati, said Christopher Lorentz of Thomas More College, who measures the health of the Ohio River by sampling fish populations near Duke Energy’s Beckjord Plant in New Richmond, Ohio, where the spill occurred.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio E.P.A. and the U.S. Coast Guard all have local offices and reached the spill site quickly. The Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO ), which represents eight states and provides an additional layer of oversight. is headquartered nearby and continues to monitor the spill.

“We’re fortunate,” said Lorentz, who directs Thomas More’s biology field station, which sits just two miles upstream from the 60-year-old, coal-fired Beckjord Plant. He said the concentration of agencies, one of which is solely focused on the Ohio River, makes Greater Cincinnati unique.

Duke Energy officials blamed human error for the spill of an estimated 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel at the location seven miles upstream from Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s drinking water supply intake valves.

From Diesel Fuel To Silver Linings

Lorentz credited Duke Energy for reporting the spill immediately: “We did get a quick response."

An ORSANCO official agreed.

Duke Energy’s “very good stewardship” allowed investigators and clean-up crews to do their jobs efficiently, said Lila Ziolkowski, an analytical and environmental chemist at ORSANCO.

“There hasn’t been any impact on the quality of the drinking water at this point because the drinking water utilities were notified well in advance,” she said.

ORSANCO will continue to collect samples and monitor the spill as it works with utilities downstream. 

“People can be confident and comfortable that both Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati Water Works took proactive measures very early on to protect their users,” Ziolkowski said. “Life can kind of flow along.”

She said that diesel is a common contaminant in the river, where commercial and industrial travel on barges, tugboats and ferries is common. Unlike crude oil or the chemical spill in Elk Creek, diesel is a common fuel that is easy to treat, Ziolkowski said.

“The river seems to be a very robust system,” she said. “It rebounds well.”

In addition, many of the fish Lorentz studies were able to swim away from the diesel-impacted area because the fuel primarily stayed on the water’s surface. “Fish are going to be able to move,” he said.

Long-term Impact Beneath The Surface

Despite those silver linings, Lorentz said that some aquatic life will suffer because of the spill.

“The biggest impacts are likely to be seen in the organisms that can’t move and stay along the bottom,” he said. Fresh-water mussels, for example, live on the bottom of the river and feed off bits of matter in the water. What diesel they accumulate from the spill will eventually be passed on to fish that eat them, like paddlefish, he said.

“We have a tremendous diversity of fish including many sensitive fish,” Lorentz said. He said that fish populations have, to a large degree, rebounded since the days before the Clean Water Act in 1972, but there has been a plateau in the last decade.

For him, the diesel fuel spill represents a more ominous and chronic danger.

“Whatever activities are occurring on land are eventually going to impact the water,” he said. “The fertilizers and pesticides that are on our agricultural fields and even in our yards, those have impacts.”

As opposed to industrial spills like this one that make headlines, heavy rains result in “spills” of stormwater that contains pesticides, oil, sale, e coli and plain old filth, he said. “Anything on the land gets into the water each time it rains.”

Chronic, “non-point-source” pollution, Lorentz said, creates the same kind of algal blooms that contaminated drinking water in Toledo. “We have those same blooms in our reservoirs all the time,” he said. “We try to manage the risks, but they are not foolproof.”

Beckjord Set To Close, But Duke Responsible ‘Forever’

In 2011, Duke Energy announced plans to close the Beckjord Plant by Jan. 1, 2015. The company said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the plant, which first went online in 1952, into compliance with current EPA standards.

Before that announcement, the environmental advocacy non-profit Ohio Citizen Action conducted a three-month letter-writing campaign urging Duke Energy to shut down the plant, which they labeled “dirty.”

Still, Lorentz noted that

even after the facility shuts down, Duke Energy still has to monitor its environmental impact, including making sure that barriers are in place to contain fuel or other potential contaminants.

“It’s not as if they close shop and leave,” Lorentz said. “They are responsible for that power plant indefinitely.”

For updates on and images of the spill, visit the EPA incident page.  

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