EPA: 'Excellent' improvement in water conditions after Duke Energy diesel fuel spill in Ohio River

Intakes reopened; drinking water safe

NEW RICHMOND, Ohio – There is "excellent improvement" in conditions on the Ohio River Wednesday and water intakes reopened in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky following a diesel fuel spill Monday, an EPA official said.

Cleanup crews recovered about 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel from the 3,000 to 5,000 gallons spilled into the river during a routine transfer at Duke Energy's W.C. Beckjord Station, about 20 miles upstream of Cincinnati, EPA On-Scene Coordinator Steven Renninger said.

Fuel recovery might be complete by the end of the day, and shoreline cleanup will begin after that, Renninger said.

The cleanup is costing about $250,000 per day and Duke Energy is paying for it. No costs will be passed on to customers, according to Sally Thelen, Duke spokesperson.

"A lot of the sheen we were seeing between New Richmond and Cincinnati has dissipated," Renninger said.

“The rain did help us last night. A lot of the oil that was along the Ohio River bank has been moved down to collection points and has been recovered. So the amount of free product that was spilled is very minimal."

Only a "minimal" sheen was left on the Ohio side, and none could be seen on the Kentucky side, he said. 

Some sheen had moved downriver, potentially as far as Lawrenceburg, Indiana,

Twenty-five cubic yards of saturated debris were also recovered, he said.

He said wildlife damage has been minimal. One beaver was recovered alive, according to Renninger.

The oil is being reclaimed from strategically placed oil-containment booms, skimmers and vacuums, Thelen said. Cleanup operations continue around-the-clock.

Water intakes were closed as soon as the spill was detected, ensuring that drinking water was safe, officials said Tuesday.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley was so sure of that he took a large gulp from a glass of water at a press conference Tuesday. He joked in front of reporters at the media briefing's start by sipping from his glass and pretending to choke.

The spill was discovered at about 11:15 p.m. Monday, according to Duke Energy officials. Crews were able to stop the release by 11:30 p.m.

A coal barge rests on the Ohio River near the site of a fuel spill.

Tony Parrott, head of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, said the department was notified of the spill just after midnight.

Parrott said crews shut down the Ohio River intakes quickly so the spill was not taken in. He said the fuel reached Water Works at about 7 a.m.

Thelen said the company is looking at this spill as a result of "human error" and not a mechanical failure.

“We’ll look and see if there’s any opportunity for re-training, reinforcing any sort of protocol that needs to be followed in a situation like this,” she said.

"It wasn't as if something failed.  We had alarms that did sound that did notify us that we did have an issue with an overflow situation. The alarms worked."

According to Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (HCEMA) officials, the spill happened when an open valve caused a secondary containment unit to lose fuel.

The process of moving fuel from two large tanks to smaller tanks is an everyday process, Thelen said. The tanks and valves are land-based and above ground. She said the diesel spilled down a hill and into the riverbank for about 15 minutes before it was stopped.

Duke Energy officials expected the fuel to pass the region's intakes by late Tuesday night.

Water Works leaders said reserves were near capacity when intakes were closed, meaning Water Works could have operate this way for an extended period of time. 

“Even if we hadn’t shut down the intakes, our treatment methods would clean the water and would be safe for drinking," Cranley said. "However, out of an abundance of caution… we decided to close our intake valves until we are confident.”

Parrott said the agency does have the capacity to feed active carbon into the water supply if they are forced to open the intakes before a spill passes.

An image of Duke Energy's W.C. Beckjord Station in New Richmond from Google Maps


The Clermont County Water Resources Department also implemented a contingency plan in response to the spill. Officials there said they shut down wells in the Pierce-Union-Batavia area with the most potential to be affected.

Lyle Bloom, director of Utilities at the department, said the agency is operating only wells that have no potential to be impacted by the spill.

“This is a precautionary measure,” Bloom said. “We do not expect the well field to be impacted by the diesel spill.  The diesel fuel will remain along the water surface and should not adversely impact the aquifer.”

This is the second time this year a foreign substance has invaded the Ohio River, causing local intakes to close. In January, a chemical leak from West Virginia made its way to the Tri-State.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works officials identified that chemical as Crude MCHM, or 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol.

"It's time we renewed our commitment to inspections and safety precautions and measures," Cranley said at Tuesday's press conference. "I've only been mayor for eight months and this is the second time we've had to do this. We need a renewed, state, federal effort at making sure we have the proper inspections in place."

The U.S. Coast Guard is also still considering whether it will allow oil and gas companies to ship fracking waste on barges down the Ohio River and other rivers under its jurisdiction. Officials are mining through public comments from supporters who think barges are the most efficient way to move the chemical-and-sand-infused byproduct, and from opponents who fear the waste could spill into drinking water.

After Tuesday's spill, the Coast Guard closed 15 miles of the river and notified agencies as far south as Louisville. River traffic reopened at about 4 p.m.

“We notified state and local authorities of the incident and have been working with them throughout the overnight hours,” said Chuck Whitlock, Duke Energy president of Midwest Commercial Generation and vice president of gas operations. “We have cleanup crews on site that are identifying the appropriate actions that will be needed to remediate.”

The Coast Guard has established a safety zone on the river to examine the spill and launch cleanup operations.

Duke Energy's W.C. Beckjord Station in New Richmond

Air monitoring and shoreline assessment teams are also in place.

Renninger said Duke Energy has assumed responsibility for the spill and are working closely with several organizations to remove diesel from the river.

He said crews dispatched three boats to recover the fuel, as well as specialized vacuums.

“It’s approaching the level of a medium oil spill response,” he said. ‘We’re anticipating several days of cleanup.”

Thelen said Duke has also deployed 1,500 feet of containment booms.

HCEMA officials said Coast Guard crews could detect a diesel odor about two miles downstream of the facility Tuesday.

“The fuel leaves a red residue,” Thelen said. “If people along the riverbank notice a red substance on the soil or in the current, that's the diesel fuel oil.”

The plant, which is set to close down Jan. 1, 2015, has the capacity to put out 1,124 megawatts of power and has six coal/steam units. In began operating in June 1952.

WCPO's Jason Law contributed to this report.

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