HOPEWELL — Hopewell’s water supplier began treating water Tuesday evening after tests found no trace of the 600 gallons of diesel fuel spilled late Monday.
The spill halted water production for most of Tuesday and had city leaders worried about an emergency lack of water.
Officials issued a notice for residents to boil their water for at least one minute during the next two days, beginning at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Schools dismissed students at 11:30 a.m. amid fears the city could run dry by midday as industries and residents were asked to reduce their water usage.
Virginia American, the private utility that treats the city’s water, noticed the fuel leak late Monday near its intake facility on the Appomatox River. Crews worked to clean the estimated 600 to 800 gallons that flowed into river.
Tests on Tuesday appeared to show that the crisis had been averted before it became severe. Water pressure dropped in many homes, but the city never ran out of water, as leaders feared earlier in the day.
“All rounds of testing so far have come up negative, which means there’s no sign of any contamination, which is great news,” said William Walsh, president of Virginia American, which provides Hopewell and some neighboring areas with more than 20 million gallons a day.
Walsh said an investigation into the spill, which came from generators used for backup power at the intake facility, would likely identify the cause today. But on Tuesday, he said, it was too soon to speculate.
The test results arrived before the free water planned for distribution to residents. Plans continued to hand out water starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday and then from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. today. Residents can get up to 10 gallons of bulk water at Carter Woodson Middle School and a case of bottled water at Hopewell High. An information number was set up for residents: (804) 446-0282. The city manager asked that people not call 911.
A contractor removed about 90 percent of the floating fuel by midafternoon, said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees river pollution. The fuel created a sheen on the Appomattox for more than 3 miles, he said. Some fuel was still visible on the surface Tuesday afternoon at a local marina upstream of the spill.
Some fuel got onshore and will have to be cleaned up, Hayden said. Some also got into wetlands. That could require a cleanup, but the best option might be to let the oil dissipate naturally, he said.
The plant provides drinking water for about 28,000 people in Hopewell, with a few in Prince George County and about 17,500 customers in Fort Lee, said Dan Horne of the state Health Department, which oversees drinking water. Fort Lee has another drinking water source, the Appomattox River Water Authority, that can supply it until the Hopewell plant resumes operation.
Hopewell, unlike Fort Lee, doesn’t have the infrastructure to turn to another water source. Walsh said providers have previously discussed laying pipes that would allow an alternate source in emergencies, but those discussions remain in the planning stages.
After the spill was discovered, he said, the utility was immediately able to “detect a little (diesel) coming in, so we shut it down.”
Walsh said no diesel reached the water supply already in the plant and that the shutdown was a precaution to keep the fuel from contaminating the treatment facility.
At the DEQ, Hayden said “we have not seen any environmental impacts” such as dead fish or oily animals. He said tides took some of the fuel up and down the Appomattox, but it was unclear how far the diesel spread.
Hayden said two factors limited the impact of the spill: First, that the fuel mainly floats and the intakes are underwater. Second, the cold weather makes the fuel thicker — “in sort of a gel state” — and easier to collect.
Booms placed in the river “absorb what’s on the surface and also prevent it from spreading,” Hayden said.
There was confusion among residents Tuesday morning about the spill. Many thought it was related to a 42-foot boat that sank last week at a local marina and leaked oil and gasoline into the river. City officials re-emphasized at their news conferences that the boat was in no way related to the spill.
Tuesday morning, the notice of a water shortage led many people to stockpile however they could. Sentiment among locals was largely that the spill caused a slight inconvenience but wasn’t cause for panic.
Lisa Postic, owner of Lisa’s Café, filled sinks, pitchers and coolers Tuesday morning so she could make it through lunch service and wash dishes. And she made plenty of tea.
“If they don’t get it fixed, it’s going to be rough not just for me but for everybody in Hopewell,” Postic said.
Hopewell fire chief Donald R. Hunter II added, meantime, that his operation had loaded tanker trucks ready to respond to any fire, and had also asked neighboring Chesterfield and Prince George counties for assistance.
Local officials urged residents to continue conserving water Tuesday evening as the water pressure builds.
“We’re very encouraged,” City Manager Mark Haley said Tuesday evening. “We’re a very thirsty town. We ask everyone’s patience as the system recharges and the system comes up.”
Staff writer Markus Schmidt contributed to this report.