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Pennsylvania church cleans up oil spill

Small UU congregation needs to raise $45,000.
By Jane Greer

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When the temperature plunged in Pottstown, Pa., in early January, most people were concerned about their utility bills. But it turned out that the 45-member Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Pottstown had more to worry about than the high cost of heating. The cold snap caused one of the church’s pipes to burst, spilling 150 gallons of oil onto the church’s property. Much of that oil ended up in a stream bordering the church’s property. While the oil spillage in the stream has been contained, the congregation is now faced with “remediating” the soil between the church building and the stream. Damages could exceed $45,000 for the entire clean-up job.

The church first received news of a possible problem when a neighbor called to report a strong oil smell. The congregation responded immediately, said the Rev. Paul Langston-Daley, the church’s part-time minister, alerting the Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the local municipality. Within 24 hours, the oil in the stream had been contained. “There was a small dam in the stream that held most of the oil,” said Langston-Daley. “The gods were with us!” The cost for clearing the stream was approximately $29,000, of which only $10,000 was covered by insurance. Additional funds will be required to clean up the contaminated soil on the church lot.

“Ironically,” said Mary Alsayegh, congregation president, “we had planned to review our insurance coverage at the February board meeting.”

A relief fund has been set up by the Joseph Priestley District to help the Pottstown congregation cover its costs. The Rev. Dr. Richard Speck, JPD district executive, has been contacting congregations within the district asking them to donate. He sent the Pottstown church its first check for $3,600 in late February. “Should we exceed the total needed by Pottstown,” he wrote in an email to JPD congregations, “we will start a relief fund for other emergencies that our congregations may experience in the future.”

The initial news about the oil spill was a shock, Alsayegh said, but the congregation was determined to keep on with business as usual. “We had visitors the morning after we heard the news,” Alsayegh said. “They were very impressed that we didn’t let it overshadow the service. They have attended every Sunday service since then.”

See sidebar for information on contributing to the Pottstown Relief Fund.

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