CHARLESTON: Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents are spending a second night unable to bathe, shower or drink tap water yesterday after a chemical spill into the Elk River called the water’s safety into question.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co, told a news conference. The company runs the state’s largest water treatment plant.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration yesterday. The spill forced the closure of schools and businesses in Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city.
Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he could not say when it would be declared safe for normal use.
The spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water.
The spill came from a tank belonging to Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries.
Water carrying this chemical has an odour like licorice or anise, McIntyre said. While the chemical is not highly lethal, the level that could be considered safe has yet to be quantified, he said.
A water company spokeswoman said the chemical could be harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.
By Friday evening, 737 people had called the West Virginia Poison Center to report concerns or symptoms related to the spill, according to Director Elizabeth Scharman.
Those with symptoms reported nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and/or reddened skin — “varying from very mild to much more bothersome,” Scharman said.
Scharman said that the centre knows of 70 people who have been seen by an emergency room doctor, though only a handful have been admitted to hospitals.
The governor said in an interview with CNN that there were several thousand gallons of the chemical at the plant, and it is estimated that at most about 5,000 gallons leaked out.
“The old tank has been emptied and taken away and as of right now the company is closed down,” Tomblin said. The Department of Environmental Protection issued a “cease operations” order against the facility.
The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the site, where they found a leaking tank, a spokeswoman for Governor Tomblin said.