By Ralph B. Davis
BETSY LAYNE — A Thursday morning oil spill in the Big Sandy River is expected to extend a water outage in the Right Beaver area and could expand it to Left Beaver, while water officials in Prestonsburg are keeping a close eye on the river and preparing for an emergency shutdown.
The spill happened just above the Pike County line, at Harmon’s Branch. Doug Hyden, with Kinzer Drilling, which owns the property where the spill occurred, said a landslide knocked a line loose from a storage tank, causing a spill of 75 barrels, or 3,150 gallons.
“I was notified around 8 a.m.,” Hyden said. “By 8:30, we had personnel on the scene creating dams to try to contain the oil.”
Hyden said that, while some oil did get into the river, he believes most of it was contained before it got that far.
“I know we still have a lot of oil where we’re at, so not a lot of it made it to the river,” he said.
Peter Goodman, director of the state Division of Water, agreed with Hyden’s assessment of the situation.
“Some of the oil made it to the Levisa Fork, but most of it is still in Harmon’s Branch,” Goodman said.
Goodman said two underflow dams were built to contain the oil, and two vacuum trucks and absorbent booms were deployed to trap the oil and skim it from the water’s surface.
Goodman could not say whether Kinzer would face any penalties as a result of the spill, saying the cleanup was the first priority.
“That’s something we’ll address a few days down the road,” Goodman said.
Goodman and Doug Tackett, with Pike County Emergency Management, said the spill itself should not pose much risk to humans, but it could cause problems for fish and wildlife. Goodman also said there was no immediate danger of the oil igniting and that the public was in “no immediate danger.”
At noon, Thursday, the spill had slowly made its way to near Betsy Layne, due to the slow speed of a low river, and work crews were busy trying to clean the spill before it caused problems for water companies.
“They’re working now on getting booms in the river to corral it and soak it up,” Tackett said.
For Southern Water and Sewer District, the news only added another headache to an already problematic week.
Dean Hall, assistant general manager with Southern, said the utility had just completed repairs to a water line break that had knocked out water to the Right Beaver area for two days, when they received news of the spill. Now, the utility is keeping its intake shut down, which could delay restoration of water to Right Beaver “for another day or two” and could lead to outages in the Left Beaver area, as well.
Hall said the shutdown was regrettable, but unavoidable, due to the impact the spill could have on the water system.
“We’ve been told by the Division of Water, if that [oil] gets in our system, it will be another West Virginia,” Hall said, referring to the Elk River chemical spill in January that knocked out water to 300,000 customers across nine counties. Hall said if oil got into Southern’s intake, “We could be without water for a month.”
Prestonsburg Utilities Manager David Ellis said shortly before noon Thursday that all his office could do at that time was to wait and watch. He said crews had been stationed several miles above the utility’s intake — which is downriver of the Southern intake — to monitor progress of the spill.
“If we see it coming, we’ll just shut it down until it passes,” Ellis said. He added that should not prove to be a problem for water customers, because, “We have plenty of storage.”