CHARLESTON, W.Va. – At least 100,000 customers in nine West Virginia counties were told not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes using their tap water because of a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declaring a state of emergency Thursday for all those areas.
The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday. The amount that spilled wasn’t immediately known. West Virginia American Water has a treatment plant nearby and it is the company’s customers who are affected.
“The water has been contaminated,” said Tomblin, who didn’t know how long the emergency declaration would last.
Officials, though, said they aren’t sure what hazard the spill poses to humans and that there were no immediate reports of people getting sick.
“I don’t know if the water is not safe,” said water company president Jeff McIntyre.
According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.
Tomblin said he’s asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist the state with supplies of bottled water. But people weren’t waiting.
Once word got out about the governor’s declaration, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls.
As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.
“It was chaos, that’s what it was,” cashier Danny Cardwell said.
The don’t-drink-the-water declaration involves customers in the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. Most of the counties surround the capital city of Charleston, where there was a chemical smell similar to licorice in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply on Thursday night.
West Virginia lawmakers who just started their session this week won’t conduct business today because of the problem and State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed. Many students already missed some time this week because of the frigid weather.