Oh, it's true. On a cold January Saturday in 1988, an oil storage tank in Jefferson burst, spilling more than 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel -- enough to run a Hummer for at least a month, assuming Hummers ran on diesel -- into the Monongahela River. And the Environmental Protection Agency has indeed dubbed this the largest spill in U.S. history. So Pittsburghers, hold your heads up high.
A little after 5 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 2, an Ashland Oil Company tank holding 3.5 million gallons ruptured in the South Hills community of Jefferson, not far from the riverside. Emergency crews arrived within a few hours, but by that time, officials discovered that 250 gallons of oil were spilling into storm drains and emptying into the Mon every minute.
It took more than 16 hours to shut off leaking pipes -- one leak was plugged with a golf tee, according to reports. But by then, approximately 700,000 gallons of oil had sluiced into the Mon, and later into the Ohio.
Given our recollections of the 1980s, you might think an oil spill would freshen up the city's rivers. But not so: The shutdown of area mills in recent years had improved water quality, and birds and fish were returning to the Mon and Ohio -- only to be killed again by the thousands in the Ashland spill. For years afterward, there were anecdotal reports of boaters afraid to travel the Mon or the Ohio for fear of getting oil all over their boats. (The proper finish for a Pittsburgh motorboat, of course, is spilled beer.)
In the short term, the spill interrupted water service throughout the region's southern and western communities. Subzero temperatures and fast river currents made the job of containing the spill especially difficult. Film footage from the period shows workers dressed in ski masks, multiple layers and lifejackets, while carrying giant "sausages" -- bags filled of absorbent material designed to suck up oil. It looks like someone cleaning up after a battle involving warring tribes of Michelin men.
Ashland was one of the largest oil refineries in the country and the maker of Valvoline motor oil. While EPA later credited the company for its "quick notification" of local authorities, Ashland's response otherwise wasn't exactly a PR masterpiece. First the company said the tank that burst was new. A day later, spokesmen acknowledged that it was actually 40 years old, but had been moved to the Jefferson site. Turns out that the firm made common use of reconstructed steel, because it was at least 25 percent cheaper than building new.
"Every other company does it," company chairman John Hall was quoted saying in the Pittsburgh Press.
For many residents, this excuse didn't seem to hold much water. And neither, apparently, did the tank itself. Usually, before a tank was put in service, engineers would fill it with water and check for leaks. But Ashland acknowledged that it hadn't followed normal procedures with its Jefferson tank: Instead, it put about 5 feet of water in the tank, sprayed some oil on the walls, and subjected it to air pressure. Turns out that its tank ruptured as it was being filled for the very first time.
Ashland defended its testing procedure. But even as the clean-up from one tank was continuing, the Pittsburgh Press reported a controversy at another Ashland terminal: a tank being built with 18-year-old steel which also lacked permits that government officials said were necessary.
Ashland, it seems, was a bit too slick for its own good. The company pledged to pay for clean-up costs, and -- just in case anyone was worried about how this would affect Ashland -- company officials rushed to assure everyone that they had they had an insurance policy from a Bermuda-based firm. Because nothing says "dependability" like a Bermuda-based insurance policy.
But before the oil had moved downstream, something else was bubbling to the surface: lawyers. By Jan. 6 -- just four days after the spill -- four area residents had filed suit against Ashland for what they called "corporate maliciousness." In the end, the company endured numerous legal troubles, paying numerous damages to state and federal agencies for the spill, capped by a no-contest plea in a federal case that resulted in a $2.25 million fine.
In return for their trouble, though, Pittsburgh residents got river-pollution bragging rights that no one can take away. We hope.