BARBERTON, Ohio (WJW) — It’s been a week since an out-of-state oil recycler spilled a still-undetermined amount of motor oil into the Tuscarawas River in Barberton, which witnesses said turned the water black and killed wildlife.
The cleanup continues, in which the spilled oil now traveling down the river is being contained by booms, covered in absorbent pads or being vacuumed by industrial suction trucks, according to officials.
How it happened
The late Wednesday, July 5, spill was first reported to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency the following Thursday, then traced to a warehousing and logistics company along Snyder Avenue. There, Noble Oil Services was transferring used oil planned for recycling from a tanker truck to a railcar when the oil spilled into a storm sewer that drained into the Tuscarawas River, according to a statement from the EPA.
It’s believed the truck’s hose burst or came loose from its fitting, then the attached pump started pumping oil into the ground, rather than the railcar, according to George Bower, Noble Oil’s vice president of risk management, who was at the site Tuesday and Wednesday.
That oil then made its way into a nearby storm drain — but that contamination wasn’t noticed until the next morning, he told FOX 8 News.
The Noble Oil truck driver involved has been transferring oil at the Snyder Avenue facility for a little more than 10 years, and there’s never been a spill, Bower said.
He said the company’s drivers are trained to handle spills and the facilities they visit for deliveries, like the one along Snyder Avenue, keep containment plans. For Noble Oil, the first step is calling their privately contracted emergency cleanup crews to the scene, he said.
“The driver on the site … had put material and booms around the storm drain and did not believe any had gone into the storm drain,” Bower said.
It wasn’t until the next day that a local man looking to fish on the river spotted the oil and reported it to local authorities.
The storm drain was cleaned first, to keep more contaminants out of the river, Bower said.
“Noble Oil has been in this business, recycling used oil for about 35 years,” Bower said. “Our business is to keep this out of the environment. So it’s disconcerting for me when we are part of the problem, contributing to a release like this.
Earlier, he added: “This is the business that we’re in — doing these kinds of cleanups. … We will be here until it’s done.”
An EPA spokesperson previously said Noble Oil would be billed for the cleanup, but wouldn’t elaborate on any enforcement efforts.
“Currently, the focus is on the cleanup,” EPA spokesperson Dina Pierce said Tuesday. “Notices of violation and any other enforcement actions are generally determined at a later date.”
Where is the oil now?
Barberton Mayor Bill Judge told FOX 8 News the spill happened just south of Snyder Avenue — which is near Wolf Creek and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail — and started traveling south along the river.
Cleanup crews floated several booms to contain the oil’s spread at the site of the spill, at the intersection of Van Buren and Vanderhoof roads and at Center Road, Judge said.
Since rain expected on Wednesday and Thursday could make the cleanup more difficult, workers were planning to set a fifth containment boom below the Center Road bridge, Bower said.
“With the booms in place, I’m not concerned about it spreading,” he said.
About a dozen workers were on the river cleaning up Wednesday. The company even bought a second boat the state’s recommendation, he said.
“This is complex and it’s slow because of the level of the river and the amount of vegetation in the river. It does a better job of containing it to that it’s not spreading out, but it does make the actual cleanup take longer,” Bower said.
Judge told FOX 8 News that the city’s drinking water supply, which is upstream from where the spill occurred, would not be affected — despite false claims that circulated on social media.
“We will not play on the fears generated by rumors, inaccurate information or misinformation,” Judge said in a video posted Monday to the city’s Facebook page.
“I know there are a lot of residents who want to help and clean up and be a part of it,” Judge later told FOX 8 News on Tuesday. “We just don’t want to get in the way of the professionals who get paid to do this.”
‘Gallons and gallons of oil’
It’s still unknown how much oil was spilled. Bower said the company will eventually be able to determine how much was lost from the truck, but determining how much of that made it into the river will be more difficult.
Kenmore resident James Carnahan, a former 15-year Summit Metro Parks worker, said he found the water at his usual fishing spot on Thursday morning was slick and shiny from “gallons and gallons of oil.”
At the time, residents knew little to nothing about the extent of the spill or what was being done, he said. So he started documenting it and posting photos and video to social media, including pictures of the dead waterfowl along the shore and videos of his hand reaching beneath the river’s inky surface and coming out covered in oil.
On Tuesday, Carnahan said he saw ODNR crews removing carcasses from the shore, which is important to keep scavenging animals from becoming sickened by feeding on them, he said.
“My hope is they have a crew every single day that goes down that river and starts collecting animals,” he said.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife has rescued several geese and one mallard from the river, according to a Tuesday statement from the department. Many of those waterfowl are now being rehabilitated at a Bay Village facility.
“We will continue to monitor wildlife in the area,” reads the statement.
‘We’ve never had a spill this large before’
“We’ve never had a spill this large before,” Tim Jasinski, the center’s wildlife rehabilitation specialist, told FOX 8 News. There were so many birds in need — each taking about 30 minutes to clean — that the center reached out to another agency for help.
When first brought in, the ducks needed to drink fluids to stabilize them and help their bodies push out the oil coating their stomachs, which they ingested by trying to clean the oil from their feathers with their bills, Jasinski said.
They’re now cleaned and under heating lamps, as seen in a Tuesday post on the center’s Facebook page.
The geese are expected to spend some time recovering and rebuilding their natural protections, Jasinski said. Washing waterfowl also removes the natural oils that keep their feathers waterproof and keep them from sinking on water, he said.
Eventually, the center will work with the state wildlife division to find a suitable spot to release the geese, he said.
“They look great, compared to what they did. It’s night and day,” Jasinski said.