Sheen on Potomac River likely to reach area Wednesday

A boom is in place Tuesday morning at the Great Falls intake on the Potomac River, to divert water with the petroleum sheen from entering the Washington Aqueduct system. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
A boom is in place Tuesday morning at the Great Falls intake on the Potomac River, to divert water with the petroleum sheen from entering the Washington Aqueduct system. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
The Potomac River normally flows into the Great Falls intake, heading to the Washington Aqueduct. With Tuesday's petroleum sheen approaching, the intake has been closed. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
The Potomac River normally flows into the Great Falls intake, heading to the Washington Aqueduct. With Tuesday’s petroleum sheen approaching, the intake has been closed. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, says customers won't notice the steps that have been taken. There's enough water in the system to weather a smallish sheen. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, says customers won’t notice the steps that have been taken. There’s enough water in the system to weather a smaller sheen. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
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A boom is in place Tuesday morning at the Great Falls intake on the Potomac River, to divert water with the petroleum sheen from entering the Washington Aqueduct system. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
The Potomac River normally flows into the Great Falls intake, heading to the Washington Aqueduct. With Tuesday's petroleum sheen approaching, the intake has been closed. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, says customers won't notice the steps that have been taken. There's enough water in the system to weather a smallish sheen. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON — Water officials are keeping an eye out and making preparations as an unidentified sheen on the surface of the Potomac River slowly makes its way toward some of the area’s drinking-water intakes.

“It’s not like a huge oil slick, but it’s got the prismatic colors indicative of an oil slick,” said Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the aqueduct processes drinking water for the District, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Jacobus said rain expected Wednesday will help move and dissipate the product, which appears to be similar to a hydraulic fluid or lubricant. Aqueduct officials have closed their Great Falls intake.

“Customers won’t notice a thing in the quality and quantity of their drinking water,” Jacobus said.

The slick was observed Monday from a U.S. Park Police helicopter, Jacobus said, adding, “We’re going to put another copter up today. The river is low, and the pollutant is flowing slowly.”

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said in a statement Tuesday evening  the sheen is still several miles north of an intake at its Potomac River filtration plant. Initially, WSSC anticipated the sheen would reach its plant Tuesday morning.

The plant produces about 70 percent of WSSC’s treated water for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the commission said.

The plume is expected to reach Great Falls several hours after passing the WSSC plant, which is located upriver, in northwestern Montgomery County.

“Out of an abundance of caution we’ve already put a boom up in front of Great Falls, which is one of our two intakes,” Jacobus said. “The other is at Little Falls.”

WSSC said that they’ve filled their system to capacity, closed the intake late Monday night and would reopen it after the plume passes. They’re also doing additional testing on the water that’s coming into the plant before it goes out to customers, and they have put a boom in the river to divert water.

The plume was discovered Sunday near Point of Rocks, Maryland.

Fairfax Water, Frederick County, the Town of Leesburg, and  the City of Rockville are also keeping watch on the sheen, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said in a statement.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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