Some 300,000 residents in nine West Virginia counties have been
told avoid consuming or using public water supplies indefinitely after a
chemical spill that emitted the odor of black licorice tainted the Elk
River near Charleston, prompting businesses, schools and restaurants to
close, a run on bottled water and state and federal officials to
declare a state of emergency.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin
urged water customers in the southwest counties of Kanawha, Putnam,
Jackson, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Boone counties, as well as
customers in the area of Culloden in Cabell County, to stop using water
for everything but flushing toilets and fighting fires. There is no
timeline for water restoration.
"Do not drink it. Do not
cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it,"
Tomblin warned. "For safety, we would ask everyone -- this includes
restaurants, hospitals, any institutions out there -- please do not use
any tap water if you're a customer of West Virginia American Water."
Friday, West Virginia regulators ordered Freedom Industries, the
company responsible for the leak, to cease operations until it recovers
the chemical from the river and tests storage tanks and containment
structures for reliability.
It's unclear how much of the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), was spilled and how much of a hazard it poses.
health officials say MCHM could be potentially harmful if swallowed and
could cause skin and eye irritation. But Jeff McIntyre, president of
the West Virginia American Water Company, says so far, water tests to
determine how much MCHM is in the water have been inconclusive. "We
don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe,"
"There is material present. We don't know how to
quantify it,'' McIntyre said. A National Guard mobile lab will conduct
sampling, he said.
The spill occurred Thursday when MCHM, used to
wash coal of impurities, leaked from a Freedom Industries tank and
overran a containment area, then poured into the Elk River and a nearby
Officials from Freedom, which makes chemicals for
the mining, steel, and cement industries, said they were working with
local and federal officials and are following "all necessary steps to
fix the issue."
Earlier Friday, the spill prompted President Obama
to issue a state of emergency for the state. Retailers quickly sold
out of bottled water. Truckloads of water were shipped from Maryland by
the National Guard. Wal-Mart said it would also provide several
truckloads of water.
The state Department of Environmental
Protection's air-quality officials discovered the spill -- which the
company had not reported, the Charleston Gazette
reported. "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped,"
said department spokesman Tom Aluise. "A certain amount of that got
into the river. Some of that was contained."
Industries President Gary Southern said the company is still trying to
determine how much MCHM had been released. The steel tank holding the
chemical has a capacity of 35,000 gallons. "We have mitigated the risk,
we believe, in terms of further leakage,'' Southern said at an evening
news conference. "Our mission now is to move on to the next phase of
The leak caused a licorice-like smell to
envelope the capital, forcing businesses schools in five counties and
the state legislature to shut down.
Warnings of contamination to the water supply triggered
a run on stores selling bottled water, including a Sam's Club that sold
its 4,200 cases of water in an hour and a half, The Charleston Daily Mail reported. Store employees said they were unable to find any more water at stores in a 20-mile radius.
sheriff's office in Kanawha county reported receiving about a dozen 911
calls after scuffles broke out over rapidly dwindling supplies. the Gazette reported. Police were asked to step up patrols around convenience stores.
The chemical's odor -- similar to cough syrup - was especially
strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River,
which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Marriott
shut off all water to rooms, and then turned it back on so guests could
flush toilets. Each guest was given two 16.9-ounce bottles of spring
water upon returning to the hotel.
The head of the state Air
National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing said 75 tractor-trailers loaded
with water were sent to West Virginia from a Federal Emergency
Management Agency facility in Maryland, the Gazette reported. A C-130 cargo aircraft was sent to Martinsburg to pick up the water.
officials said the orders against drinking water from the tap were
issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard
the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear how much
of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.
governor's warning about water use included restaurants, hospitals,
nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water.
Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence
Messina said he wasn't aware of any hospitals closing and that area
medical centers "seemed to have adequate water supply, at least for the
The water ban also affected airlines serving Charleston's Yeager Airport in Charleston. Yeager
spokesman Bryan Belcher said Friday that a USAirways flight from
Charlotte, N.C., was cancelled overnight because its crew couldn't take
Belcher says airport officials have notified airlines of the problem so they can make contingency plans.
executive director Rick Atkinson says the airport is working with the
airlines to find alternative housing for overnight flight crews.
the Little India restaurant in Charleston, about 12 customers were
asked to leave when bar manager Bill LaCourse learned about the shutdown
Karlee Bolen, 16, of Charleston, said her family,
including her parents, two sisters and brother, were considering the
possibility of heading to her grandmother's home in Braxton County,
where tap water was unaffected, an hour to the northeast.
"I kind of want to shower and brush my teeth," she said.
Contributing: Associated Press
Doug Stanglin and Gary Strauss , USA TODAY