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West Virginia chemical spill: More days to come without water

As investigators look for the cause and impact of a chemical spill in West Virginia, officials say it’s likely to be days before public water supplies are declared safe enough for some 300,000 residents.

By Staff writer / January 12, 2014

Members of the West Virginia Army National Guard offload emergency water Saturday in Belle, W.Va. About 300,000 people are without safe running water. Federal authorities are investigating how a foaming agent escaped the Freedom Industries plant and seeped into the Elk River.

Marcus Constantino/The Daily Mail/AP

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Four days after a chemical spill polluted the Elk River in West Virginia, some 300,000 people in nine counties remain without water for drinking, washing, and cooking.

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Brad Knickerbocker is a staff writer and editor based in Ashland, Oregon.

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Several dozen people have sought treatment for nausea, rashes, and other symptoms at local hospitals. Businesses and schools remain closed. And state and federal authorities are investigating the cause and continuing impact of the estimated 7,500-gallon spill of the industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

Officials say it’s likely to be days before public water supplies are declared safe enough for anything other than flushing toilets or firefighting.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency for the nine counties, which includes the state capital of Charleston, the state's largest city. President Obama has issued an emergency declaration.

With help from the West Virginia Army National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent 75 tractor trailers full of bottled water to the area impacted by the spill.

"As of Saturday, FEMA has delivered approximately 1 million liters of water from its distribution centers in Cumberland and Frederick, Maryland, to the area for use by the state," the agency said. "FEMA will continue to deliver supplies to the state for distribution, as needed."

Once the spill was detected and contained, it became a matter of time before the chemical in the river became diluted and was flushed downstream. Once the chemical level meets the 1 part per million requirement set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, authorities will begin lifting the ban on tap water.

Hardest hit have been restaurants and other businesses serving local residents and visitors to the Charleston area.

"What we're working on is a plan to be able to allow businesses to present plans for potable water," Dr. Rahul Gupta, the health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told Reuters.

"We'll review those plans and after we verify, we'll reopen businesses on a case-by-case basis. We have begun that process already.”

The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (Crude MCHM), which is used to clean impurities from coal, is toxic but not considered lethal to humans. On Thursday, the spill was discovered from a leaky 40,000-gallon tank owned by the Freedom Industries company.

Before being discovered by Freedom Industries employees, the spill leaked beyond a containment area surrounding the tank, flowing into the Elk River about a mile upstream of the area’s water treatment plant.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Freedom Industries informed state authorities last year that it was storing 10 industrial chemicals on the site, including the contaminant that leaked, according to a document released Saturday.

“Companies with hazardous chemicals on their properties are required by federal law to disclose a list annually to state and local emergency planning authorities,” according to this report. “It wasn't clear, however, what was done with the information or whether the company that runs the water-treatment plant affected by the spill, West Virginia American Water Co., was aware of the document. The company said it was caught off guard when MCHM, which is used in coal preparation, appeared in the water supply on Thursday.”

Fred Millar, a longtime chemical industry watchdog in Washington, said the lack of better planning was an example of how the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act hasn't been properly enforced around the country, the Gazette-Mail in Charleston reported Saturday.

"Obviously, the whole idea of the chemical inventory reports is to properly inform local emergency officials about the sorts of materials they might have to deal with," Millar said. "It's just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."

Meanwhile, advises the water company, aside from toilet flushing and firefighting, alternative sources of water should be used for all purposes. Bottled water or water from another, safe source should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, bathing, food and baby formula preparation and all other purposes until further notice. 

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