Residents line up for water at a water filling station at
West Virginia State University. REUTERS/Lisa Hechesky
Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents were told not to
drink tap water after a chemical spill called its safety into
question, and health officials said water in the affected area
should only be used for flushing toilets and fighting fires.
"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 televised 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. The spill forced the closure of schools and
businesses in the state capital.
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
(local time) on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia's
capital and largest city, upriver from the plant run by West
Virginia American Water. Water carrying this chemical has an
odor like licorice or anise, McIntyre said.
The chemical is not highly lethal, but since the company does
not regularly see it as a contaminant, the level that could
be considered safe has yet to be quantified, McIntyre said.
A company spokeswoman said the chemical could be harmful if
swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.
The spill originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston
company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining,
steel and cement industries.
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said in a
statement the company was still determining how much Crude
MCHM had been released.
"Our team has been working around the clock since the
discovery to contain the leak to prevent further
contamination," he said.
Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to
centers around the affected area. Residents formed long lines
at stores and quickly depleted inventories of bottled water.
"It's just ridiculous. There's nowhere to buy water and
everywhere seems to be sold out. This isn't going to last two
days," said Jaime Cook of Charleston, who was buying one of
the last jugs of water at a Walmart store.
Tina May, a Charleston resident, even considered heading out
of town for the weekend. "I'm not sure how long I can last
without a shower. This is unbearable," she said.
The Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health
Departments ordered the closure of all restaurants and
schools receiving water from the West Virginia American Water
Schools also were closed in many counties, including Boone,
Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and
The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department
of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange
odour on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries
site, where they found a leaking storage unit, a spokeswoman
for Governor Tomblin said.