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Potomac chemical spill prompts precautions amid assurances

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — More Potomac River communities announced steps to protect their drinking water Tuesday even as environmental regulators gave fresh assurances that last week's chemical spill at a western Maryland paper mill poses no health threat.

The Maryland Department of the Environment said preliminary test results from river water collected about 20 miles downstream from Verso Corp.'s Luke mill did not detect any potentially harmful styrene on Saturday, three days after the spill. The agency said it was awaiting results on further tests to determine whether the spilled compound, styrene-butadiene, a nonhazardous synthetic latex, was breaking down.

Nevertheless, the Berkeley County, West Virginia, Public Service Water District said it will close its Potomac intake for up to seven days to avoid harming 22,000 customers or plant equipment as the milky plume passes later this week or early next, depending on rainfall. The utility will obtain water from other sources during the period but will ask customers to voluntarily conserve, Executive Director Chris Thiel said.

Upstream from Berkeley County, the city of Hagerstown, Maryland, said it has enhanced its treatment process to ensure safe water for its 90,000 customers. The plume could reach Hagerstown's intake as soon as Thursday, according to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

Paw Paw, West Virginia, the first Potomac water user downstream from the spill, closed its intake Sunday for two days as the plume passed.

Other downstream communities as far as Washington, D.C., were enhancing their treatment processes or preparing to act while counting on dilution to reduce the contamination.

"We have a lot of confidence this will not affect water treatment plants' ability to function or cause any health concerns for the public," said Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility that treats the drinking water for the nation's capital its northern Virginia suburbs.

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