Picton issues precautionary boil water advisory after barge fuel leak

Boil-water advisory lifted for Picton and Bloomfield

Prince Edward County is warning residents to boil their water after fuel spilled from a partially submerged barge was detected in a sampling line at the Picton-Bloomfield drinking water plant. 

On Tuesday night, Prince Edward County's mayor declared a state of emergency because contaminants leaking from the barge were floating close to a water intake pipe.

"All eyes are currently on Prince Edward County for all the wrong reasons," Mayor Robert Quaiff told reporters Thursday. "But we'll get through this."

He emphasized that the boil water advisory is precautionary and contaminants have not entered the water intake system.

The sampling line, municipal officials assured residents, is a "warning system."

Officials also said there was a "petrochemical smell" in the line.

Several nearby communities are looking to provide water to the county, in what officials have called "a widespread offer of support." 

Water treatment plant 'stays closed'

Robert McAuley, the county's commissioner of engineering, development and works, described in an afternoon news conference how the "sheen" on the surface of the bay — a combination of diesel fuel and hydraulic fluid — made its way to the line. 

"As long as the ice was in place and the sheen was visible that was the reference point," McAuley explained. "Weather has allowed the ice to melt."

The melt water shifted from the surface into the bay, within "an intake protection zone" officials estimated to be about two hours from the plant's intake pipe. 

At 5 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, McAuley said officials made the decision to close the water treatment plant until the problem is resolved.

Treating fuel-tainted water complicated

Since finding out about the leak, the county has been contacting other communities and spill experts to come up with a plan for how to deal with treated affected water. 

"It's not as prevalent as one might think," McAuley said. "So far, nobody appears to know how to treat fuel-tainted raw water."

Officials have sent samples of the water out for testing and McAuley expects to see the plant restarted in "days, not weeks." 

If the community gets the all clear, it's possible the boil water advisory could be lifted over the weekend. 

During the advisory, residents are being advised to bring water to a rapid boil for at least one minute prior to using it for domestic purposes such as drinking, making infant formula and juice, brushing teeth, washing raw foods and making ice.

In the event fuel-tainted water does contaminate the system, McAuley said he can only speculate how it would affect the decades-old treatment plant.

"I don't expect that it would collapse or anything like that," he said. 

McAuley said the plant's filtration process wasn't built for dealing with fuel. 

Crews work to lift barge

The Canadian Coast Guard has been using a variety of equipment to control the fuel leak, including vacuum trucks and absorbents.

Earlier today, a Coast Guard helicopter began circling the area to get a better sense of where the contaminants spilled. 

It's still unclear how long it will take for the Coast Guard and McKeil Marine, a salvage company, to lift the partially submerged barge from Picton Bay, but officials tried to assure residents that it won't be a long-term problem. 

When asked about concerns from boating and fishing businesses, McAuley said "I wouldn't suggest that anybody cancel their trips."

Price Edward County said there will be daily updates on the situation until the boil water advisory is lifted.