A chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River has led to a tap water ban for up to 300,000 people, shut down bars and restaurants and led to a run on bottled water in some stores as people looked to stock up.
The only safe use for the company’s water is to flush down a toilet or put out a fire, Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety announced on Twitter Thursday evening.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday for nine counties and includes West Virginia American Water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties.
A federal disaster declaration was issued shortly after, and allows for direct federal assistance in dealing with the spill, Bill Hines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said early Friday. It remained unclear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration, or how long the advisory would last.
The leak, which was first reported at 11:40 a.m., came from a 48,000-gallon storage tank, Tom Aluise, a spokesman for West Virginia’s department of environmental protection, told The Los Angeles Times. “All we know is that they discovered a hole in the tank, and material was leaking,” Aluise said. “How that hole got there, we don’t know.”
The company said on its Facebook page that a chemical spill occurred along the Elk River, causing contamination within the Kanawha Valley water system.
The chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is not toxic, but harmful if swallowed, according to Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. It is used to wash coal before it goes to market.
According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.
The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday. The amount that spilled wasn’t immediately known, but West Virginia American Water has a treatment plant nearby and it is the company’s customers who are affected.
In the capital city of Charleston, a smell similar to licorice or cough syrup was evident in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources told NBC affiliate WSAZ symptoms include: severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.
The West Virginia National Guard planned to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport on Friday to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine counties, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina told The Associated Press.
The Charleston Daily Mail notes that “If residents have consumed the water late Thursday afternoon and are experiencing severe symptoms — severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin blistering or irritation — should call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 or go to an emergency room.”
“Those who consumed the water but are not experiencing symptoms most likely will not be affected.”
Once word got out about the governor’s declaration Thursday, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.
“It was chaos, that’s what it was,” cashier Danny Cardwell said.
Reposted from ThinkProgress:
“The 6 Most Terrifying Facts About The Chemical Spill Contaminating West Virginia’s Drinking Water“
CREDIT: Twitter/Bill Murray @wsazbillmurray
On Thursday, an estimated 300,000 residents of nine counties in West Virginia were told they could not use or drink their tap water after a chemical used to wash coal of impurities spilled from a holding tank into the Elk River. The spill prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency, and 9-1-1 received more than 1,000 calls in the hours after a spill, with four or five people transported to the hospital by ambulance. According to the National Library of Medicine, repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, can “cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and can also cause a skin rash.”
On Friday, West Virginia American Water Co. held a press conference to share what they knew so far about the spill. Unfortunately, they still don’t know much about the spill or the chemical involved.
1. No one knows when water will be safe to drink again. “I can’t ballpark it because I don’t know,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co. said at the conference. The entire water system will have to be flushed and tested, and though the Elk River was the water source immediately impacted by the spill, McIntyre said that the spill impacts the entire distribution of the water system — sending water to a total of 1,500 miles in the area.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said that he had hoped to find out a timeline for when residents could use their tap water again at the press conference.
“This has been devastating to the public at large and the people that live in our city,” he said. “The folks out there that just work every day and go to work and who are just regular citizens, they would like an end to this.”
2. No one knows when the leak started or how much has leaked into the Elk River. It was complaints of an odor coming from communities near the river that triggered city and county officials to investigate. They found the source of the spill at 4 p.m. Thursday, but had no way of knowing how long the chemical had been leaking. McIntyre also said he didn’t think the chemical was still leaking, but didn’t know the current status of the spill for sure. According to a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, the state is “confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped,” but only knows that “a certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained.”
3. The water company has had no contact with Freedom Industries, the company that manufactures the spilled chemical. According to McIntyre, the company provided no notice of the spill and hasn’t been in communication with the water company since.
4. There is no standard process for testing the toxicity of the spilled chemical in water. When the water company found out about the spill, it was originally told it was a different chemical than the 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol that had spilled into the water. But even when the company found out what the chemical was, it couldn’t answer many questions about it. “This not a chemical that’s typical to be in water treatment process,” McIntyre said during the press conference.
5. It’s unclear just how dangerous the diluted chemical is to drink or breathe. According to McIntyre, toxicologists have said that people would have to eat a large amount of the chemical to cause harm, but still, McIntyre said he didn’t know how the chemical had affected the safety of the water. “We don’t know that the water’s not safe, but I can’t say it is safe.” However, Kanawha County Deputy Emergency Services Director C.W. Sigman said during the press conference that the chemical is hazardous, which lines up with the National Library of Medicine information on the chemical.
6. The chemical may have leached into the soil. McIntyre said that when the containment in the chemical holding tank failed, the chemical traveled over land and into the Elk River. That could have caused some leaching, he said