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West Virginia chemical spill leaves 300,000 without clean water

Roughly 300,000 residents have been left without usable water after chemicals spilled into a West Virginia river Thursday.
Crews clean up a chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., Jan. 9, 2014.
Crews clean up a chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., Jan. 9, 2014.

UPDATED 9:30 p.m.

Roughly 300,000 residents have been left without usable water after chemicals spilled into a West Virginia river Thursday. 

The West Virginia American Water Company has advised residents of nine state counties not to drink or bathe in their running water. Local stores have been flooded with customers looking for bottled drinking water.

The leak started in Charleston, West Virginia's capital, the county seat for Kanawha County, and the state's largest city. Local officials became aware that something was wrong around 10 am Thursday morning, after residents called to complain of a black licorice smell in the water, according to Kanawha County director of homeland security and emergency management Dale Petry. After consultation with the local health department and state authorities, the West Virginia American Water Company warning went out a little before 6 p.m.

"This has been devastating to the public at large and the people who live in our city," said Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston, W.Va. in a Friday morning press conference.

The spill originated at a chemical storage facility run by the Charleston-based company Freedom Industries, when a 48,000 gallon tank dumped an indeterminate amount of the compound 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol into the Elk River. The chemical, also known as MCHM, is used by coal companies to wash and prepare their product. People who are exposed to a sufficient quantity of MCHM may experience vomiting, skin blistering and shortness of breath. Very little is known about the other potential health consequences of exposure to the compound.

Freedom Industries president Gary Southern avoided answering questions from reporters until Friday evening, when he held a brief yet contentious press conference in front of the company's plant. He told reporters that Freedom Industries discovered the leak around 10:30 on Thursday, and promptly alerted the authorities.

"Our intent is to be absolutely transparent and we'll tell you what we know, as much as we know," he said. When asked if the leak could have started on Wednesday or earlier, he said, "We have no information on that."

At one point in the middle of the press conference, Southern tried to exit the podium, until reporters shouted that they still had questions.

"They're still under investigation of how the leak occurred," said Petry, who met with Freedom Industries representatives shortly before the press conference. "It was an older tank that might have had a leak out of a rivet, and they don't know how long or how much leaked."

Asked whether he believed Freedom Industries had complied with safety regulations, Petry said, "I would say that will come out in the investigation later."

President Obama declared a state of emergency in West Virginia Friday morning and called on FEMA to coordinate an emergency response. The West Virginia National Guard has also been called in to help distribute clean water to residents of the affected area. A spokesperson for FEMA confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security would be delivering over 1 million liters of clean water to the affected area, though the exact amount of water to be delivered remains in flux.

The U.S. attorney for southern West Virginia, Booth Goodwin, announced on Friday that he would investigate the causes of the leak.

“Yesterday’s release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy, and upended people’s daily lives," he said in a statement. "My office and other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release. We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carp described the West Virginia American Water Company's warning against using running water as "unprecedented in this community, [and] unprecedented in this state."

West Virginia American Water is working to assess the damage, but the company had few answers during Friday's press conference. The company's president, Jeffrey McIntyre, said it had yet to determine how dangerous the spill was or how widespread. Just to be sure, he asked residents of the potentially affected area to avoid using their running water for anything other than flushing the toilet.

"I can't tell you that the water is unsafe ... but I also can't tell you it's safe," he said.

Friday evening, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered Freedom Industries, Inc. to remove the remaining chemical tanks from their Charleston facility.

Various sites in the affected area have been commandeered to distribute clean water. At the South Charleston Community Center, thousands of residents showed up looking for water within a matter of hours, according to assistant director Shawn Zuniga.

"As of now it's calm, but people who are calling and everything, they're kind of in a rush to get water," he said. "They're kind of worried about it." Zuniga said the community center began distributing water at 9 a.m. Friday and had run out of their initial supply of 240,000 water bottles by 11:30 a.m..

While this type of chemical spill is unprecedented in the history of West Virginia, the coal industry has long represented a threat to the state's natural resources. In a 2012 study, environmental scientists found that 22% of the streams in southern West Virginia had been contaminated by pollution from coal mining. Even the process of cleaning the coal presents risks for local ecology.

"You can still see evidence of early 1900's coal washing in rivers," said Todd Petty, a professor of wildlife and fisheries resources at West Virginia University. "You'll find beds of very fine coal material in the bottom of rivers. Obviously that's illegal now, and so this stuff gets washed in prep plants, but also that waste goes into slurry ponds."

Asked how long it would take to decontaminate Elk River—days, months, or years—Petty said he didn't know. Jimmy Gianato, the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for West Virginia told local reporters that it could be "hours in some cases and days in others" before the water is safe to use again.