Chemical spill a blow to West Virginia’s economy

Many shops stand empty as spill carries on into its fourth day, becoming an emergency for residents and businesses

Businesses remain closed and unable to serve food and water in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 12, 2014, after a chemical spill Thursday in the Elk River contaminated the public water supply in nine counties.
Michael Switzer/AP

On the fourth day without clean tap water, business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet merchandise aisles around West Virginia's capital were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they'll take from a chemical spill.

Most visitors have cleared out of Charleston, and locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find someplace they can get a hot meal or a shower. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets mean that the spill is an emergency not just for the environment but also for local businesses.

A water-company executive said Saturday that it could be days before uncontaminated water is flowing again for about 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. The uncertainty means it's impossible to estimate the economic impact of the spill yet, said the leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Virtually every restaurant was closed Saturday, unable to use water to prepare food, wash dishes or clean employees' hands. Meanwhile, hotels had emptied, and foot traffic was down at many retail stores.

"I haven't been able to cook anything at home and was hoping they were open," Bill Rogers, 52, said outside a closed Tudor's Biscuit World in Marmet, just east of Charleston. "It seems like every place is closed. It's frustrating. Really frustrating."

In downtown Charleston, the row of restaurants and bars on Capitol Street remained locked up. Amid them, the Consignment Co. was open, but business was miserable. The secondhand shop's owner, Tammy Krepshaw, said she relies on customers who head downtown to eat and drink.

"It's like a ghost town," she said. "I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It's sad."

There's no question businesses have been hurt — particularly restaurants and hotels, said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state's largest regional chamber of commerce.

"I don't know that it can be quantified at this point, because we don't know how long it will last," he said. "I'm hoping for a solution by early next week so business can get back to normal."

While restaurants are having the most trouble, the effect ripples to other businesses, Ballard said. When people go out to dinner, they also shop. And restaurant workers who miss paychecks and tips aren't spending as much money.

The alliance is urging business owners to check their insurance policies to see if they can make claims for lost sales. It plans to hold workshops to assist businesses with those issues, he said.

Downtown, the store Taylor Books usually fills the 40 seats in its cafe. But the cafe was shut down by the state Department of Health on Friday because it said employees had no way to safely wash their hands before serving customers. 

'We're the ones who pay'

The emergency began Thursday, when West Virginia American Water received complaints about a licorice-like odor in the tap water. The cause: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), which leaked out of a 40,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River.

State officials said Saturday they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank — boosting their estimate by more than 2,000 gallons from previous days. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river; it's not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

It could take days for clean tap water to flow again. Mike Dorsey of the state's Environmental Protection Department said crews were using shovels, excavators, barges, vacuum trucks and other equipment to contain the spill.

"Every possible method of remediation for that kind of spill is being employed out there right now," he said.

The amount of MCHM in the water was decreasing by late Saturday, but is not yet consistently low enough for people to safely use the water, said Lt. Col. Greg Grant of the West Virginia National Guard.

Thirty-two people sought treatment at area hospitals for symptoms like nausea. Of those, four people were admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center. Updates on their conditions weren't available Saturday.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, opened an investigation into Thursday's spill. By Saturday morning, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or a million liters, to West Virginia for distribution at sites like fire departments.

Patricia Mason, a retired 54-year-old teacher, searched all day Friday for bottled water but didn't find any until the next day. She was frustrated and blamed Freedom Industries.

"It seems like no one watches these companies. They get away with this all the time, and we're the ones who pay for it. We're the ones who are suffering. It's just wrong," she said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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