By Sarah Mansheim
Greenbrier County residents on the Lewisburg city water system were without water this week after a diesel delivery truck crashed and spilled nearly 4,000 gallons of fuel into a tributary. The wreck occurred on Rt . 92 at around 10 p.m. Friday night on Jan. 23. According to Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill, icy conditions may have contributed to the accident.
Cahill said the fuel tanker separated from the truck cab and overturned into a tributary of Anthony Creek, which feeds into the Greenbrier River north of the Lewisburg water plant.
Lewisburg Director of Public Works Mark Carver said that the water tank’s intake valve was closed at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning, preventing any of the diesel from entering the water supply. Quick thinking kept the fuel out of the water tanks, but by Sunday evening, the water supply tanks in Frankford, Lewisburg and Ronceverte were empty.
During an emergency meeting of the Lewisburg City Council on Sunday evening, Mayor John Manchester stated it plainly – “The fact is, we are out of water,” he told a room full of reporters, officials and concerned citizens. Manchester said with no water but what existed in the water lines and the plant’s intake valve closed, pending a clean water sample report from the Department of Environmental Protection, citizens on the Lewisburg water system should prepare to be without water indefinitely.
Luckily for Lewisburg municipal residents, water came back on late Monday night when officials received word from the Department of Environmental Protection that water samples from the Greenbrier River showed no contamination. As of press time, water pressure was still lacking in some Ronceverte neighborhoods. According to Lewisburg Public Works Director Mark Carver, this was due to the city of Ronceverte opting to fill its water tank before releasing water into the lines. Carver said Lewisburg officials did the opposite. Officials with both cities have urged patience as due diligence is given to public health issues through the boil water advisory, which was put in place as a precautionary measure due to the water tanks becoming empty.
“I realize boil water advisories are a pain in the neck, but they help protect public health,” said Manchester in a Facebook post on the city of Lewisburg’s page. Meanwhile, the environmental and economic impacts on the Greenbrier Valley remain to be seen.
After the tanker spilled diesel into the tributary, Woodford Transport, the company who owns the truck, hired contractors to come to the area and clean up the spill. Contractors and crews with the EPA arrived on site Sunday morning to begin cleaning up the spill site and containing the diesel to prevent it from being carried downstream. Booms were placed in Anthony Creek and the Greenbrier River to absorb the diesel, and crews worked at the tributary to remediate the tributary and an adjacent field, according to Paula Brown, deputy director of the Greenbrier County Emergency Management Agency.
The EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Francisco Cruz, told the Mountain Messenger that crews at the spill site were scraping up soils to remove the diesel from the banks. He confirmed that one of the spill collection sites is located at Blue Bend, a popular swimming and fishing area in the Monongahela National Forest. During the week, absorbent booms were in place at the popular swimming hole, and a silver sheen was visible on top of the water.
Cruz told the Mountain Messenger that diesel’s behavior, in that it floats on top of the water, creates a strong visual sheen, even in the presence of “trace amounts” of diesel. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, small diesel spills, classified as 500-5,000 gallons, have little long-term environmental impact because diesel oil is not very sticky or viscous, compared to black oils, which keeps it from “sticking” to shorelines. Also, the site says, “Diesel oil is readily and completely degraded by naturally occurring microbes, under time frames of one to two months” in moving water.
When asked why the EPA was collecting the spill at a popular swimming area, Cruz said he did not know. He also stated he did not know if the area will be safe for swimming and fishing this summer.
“We are focused on tributary cleanup, not long-term cleanup,” Cruz said, adding that county officials will be in charge of managing the long-term consequences of the spill.
The loss of water in Lewisburg on Monday and in Ronceverte throughout the week, along with the boil water advisory, left many businesses, schools and stores shuttered. Most restaurants and shops are open again, but the fallout from the water shutdown is starting to become apparent.
Rusty Webb of the Webb Law Centre in Charleston alerted this newspaper that his office has filed a class action suit against Woodford Transport, which is located in Elkins, on behalf of The Bakery LLC, The Irish Pub and William-Walton Inc. DBA Food & Friends. The suit is seeking compensation for negligence, public nuisance, private nuisance, violation of the West Virginia Hazardous Waste Act and damages associated with the water shutdown. According to the Register Herald, another lawsuit has been filed against Woodford Transport and the driver of the truck, Kenneth Pritt of Beverly, by Kristie L. Bennett; Tony Hill, along with his businesses Show Your Colors and Hill Properties LLC; TWB Odyssey LLC, doing business as The Wild Bean; and Roger Dolan Jr., individually and as a member of TWB Odyssey LLC.
As Greenbrier County moves forward from the water crisis, the full-fledged economic and environmental impacts on the area will be revealed.