Workers scramble to clean oil spilled into Schuylkill

Sam Newhouse

The U.S. Coast Guard, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and environmental workers wereon the Schuylkill River Monday trying to sop up home heating oil that recently spilled into the river as the odor of oil filled the air.

The spill does not pose a risk to the public, officials said, because the oil was spilled downstream from the Water Department’s river intakes, and intakes did not need to be closed.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said all the fuel was contained in snow on the banks and ice on the river, and none got into open water.

“Most of the fuel oil appears to have been trapped by the heavy snow, which continues to make site access difficult,” the DEP said in a statement. “Reports indicate that approximately 200 gallons of red dye fuel contained in the ice on the river can be seen from Market Street to Locust St. At this time, there is no oil sheen in open water.”

The leak was first reported to the city on Saturday night, according to the Philaelphia Water Department (PWD).

“PWD visited the site and investigated the report that night with a follow up visit Sunday and today. Our investigation indicates that the river discoloration was due to a leak from a fuel oil tank from a nearby location,”

On Reddit, a user posted a picture Sunday showing a reddish leak in the water, which has a similar appearance to what has now been identified as oil.

The Water Department said the spill was downstream from water intakes, and there is no risk to drinking water.

Approximately 4,200 gallons of oil leaked, with 250 gallons ending up in the river and 3,950 gallons on land.

The source was an emergency generator in the apartment building at 2400 Market Street, which is owned by Century Link.

“It was a residential condo apartment building. It fuels the generator, and there is product in the water,” said Samantha Phillips, executive director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “Our hazmat task force is out there monitoring and taking readings and water samples.”

Clean-up is tricky because the river is mostly ice, Phillips said.

“It’s not being boomed because you can’t deploy booms on ice,” Phillips said, referring to containment booms — floating underwater barriers that are typically set up around oil spills.

Century Link has a contractor supervising cleanup, Phillips said. The Schuylkill River Trail is closed off between Market and Walnut streets.

A long CSX train with what appeared to be oil tankers was stopped near the spill site as the tracks had oil on them.

“We’re working closely with CSX. Their rail line has spill on it,” Phillips said. “It’s going to affect the trails slightly. There will be a sheen on the trail that will have to be cleaned up as well.”

How the oil got into the water is not exactly clear due to heavy snowfall, the DEP said.

“According to initial investigations, the spill migrated from the source location onto nearby CSX Rail property, further onto the Schuylkill River Trail and has entered the Schuylkill River,” the DEP said. “At this point, because of the accumulation of snow in the area, the path to the river has not been determined. It has not yet been confirmed if the path is the result of an overflow on land, or through a storm sewer.”

Passersby on the Chestnut Street bridge were shocked Monday afternoon to see the veins of reddish-brown oil in the ice and water on the river.

“It’s amazing how society has been advancing,but we haven’t really focused on what used to work with the environment,” observed Dan Katz. “Our infrastructure is the same.”

Additional reporting by Jenny DeHuff

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