West Virginia Chemical Spill: No Water in 9 Counties

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(CNN) — Nearly 200,000 people in West Virginia awoke Friday to stark warnings about their tap water: Don’t drink it. Don’t cook with it. Don’t even brush your teeth or take a shower.

The reason: a chemical spill in the Elk River in the central and southwestern parts of the state.

The news sent shock waves through the region as the worried headed to hospitals in search of reassurances they were OK.

A spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water Co., Laura Jordan, said the company had received calls about illnesses but none of them were serious.

“We just advise customers if they are feeling something that isn’t right to seek medical attention.”

Many appear to have done just that.

“Our emergency rooms have been very busy with individuals unnecessarily concerned and presenting no symptoms,” Charleston Area Medical Center said.

The water restrictions affected the hospital, too. It put into place linen conservation and alternative cleaning methods and turned away all but emergency patients.

Residents moved quickly to stock up on bottled water.

“There was a run on water at every Walmart and convenience store in the county,” said Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission.

On Thursday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine countries.

“Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools,” the governor said. “I’ve been working with our National Guard and Office of Emergency Services in an effort to provide water and supplies through the county emergency services offices as quickly as possible.”

The declaration affects West Virginia American Water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

The company said on its Facebook page that the spill along the Elk River contaminated the Kanawha Valley water system.

President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

The leaked chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is harmful if swallowed, according to Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. It is used to wash coal before it goes to market.

Jordan, the water company spokeswoman, said she first suspected something was amiss Thursday morning when she noticed an odor like licorice in the air en route to work.

The Department of Environmental Protection and the Emergency Operations Center investigated, and they found the spill coming from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water plant.

A toxicologist with Freedom Industries told the water company there is “some health risk” with this chemical, according to Jordan.

“The safety sheet indicated there could be some skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that’s at full strength of the chemical,” Jordan said. “The chemical was diluted in the river.”

She said, “What the public should realize is the chemical did not move downstream and into the water treatment facility, where it was detected by odor, until about 4 p.m.”

The do-not-use advisory was issued just before 6 p.m. as a precaution, she said.

She said the company was working with DuPont and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the level of contamination. “We will determine a course of action at that point in time,” she said.

Officials weren’t sure when the water advisory would be lifted in the nine-county area.

“You’ve got 60 miles of this system, and it’s full of this water,” said Carper of the Kanawha County Commission. “And people aren’t using the water.”

Meanwhile, Jordan said that a dozen water tankers had arrived by Friday morning from Pennsylvania and that West Virginia American Water has bought four truckloads of bottled water from a local supplier.