Chemical spill in W.Va.: Federal probe launched, 300,000 without water

A chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., has compromised water supplies and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency in nine counties.

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    City officials help direct traffic through a water distribution site set up at the South Charleston Recreation Center in South Charleston, W.Va., Jan. 10, after residents 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.
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Some 300,000 residents of Charleston, W.Va., and surrounding communities have been instructed not to drink, cook with, bathe in, or wash clothing in tap water because of a chemical spill that seeped into the Elk River on Thursday.

Chemical foam used in the washing of coal leaked out of a Freedom Industries storage facility on the outskirts of the city, prompting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) to declare a state of emergency for Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane Counties.

“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," said US Attorney Booth Goodwin, who noted that federal authorities have opened an investigation into the incident. "We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover,” Mr. Goodwin's statement concluded.

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The breach occurred when the substance leaked from a holding tank. While the facility had a secondary containment system in place to prevent leaching into the environment, some of the material managed to seep through the concrete barrier erected around the tank and into the ground, where it entered the nearby Elk River.

“Our folks are still trying to put together an accurate chronology,” says Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. “But we do believe that the leak occurred sometime yesterday morning because we had citizen complaints of an odor in that area, and the state Department of Environmental Protection began investigating those complaints.”

While the chemical, known as Crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol), is not considered a hazardous material for transportation purposes, it is deemed harmful if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

The state Department of Health & Human Resources is urging residents who may have come into contact with the substance through water supplies to contact local poison control if they are experiencing untoward symptoms such as nausea.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has allocated emergency aid to the state, including coordination of disaster relief efforts and assistance in distribution of bottled water to affected residents and institutions.

“There are dozens of FEMA trucks heading our way as we speak,” Mr. Messina says. ”I would also point out that there are water systems within this area that are not affected."

Those neighboring counties with separate water supplies have sent some water to affected areas.

If affected residents have family members in an unaffected area, they may want to consider spending the day there if practical, Messina says.

It is unclear how long this situation will last. The West Virginia American Water Co., the utility that supplies the affected area, is conducting hourly water tests and will alert residents as soon as the taps are safe to use, Greg Lay, director of Emergency Management in Boone County, told CNN in an on-air interview.

The state government is currently open, but schools in the affected area have been canceled and many businesses are closed. Local hospitals and nursing homes have been receiving clean water throughout the incident, Messina says.

“Our main message is that the water is on the way,” he says. “We’re marshaling resources in the best manner possible as quickly as we can to help folks until the utility can figure out the duration of this.”

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