West Virginia chemical spill declared federal disaster

Grocery stores sell out of bottled water as officials warn residents not to drink tap water or bathe

West Virginia residents line up to get water at West Virginia State University, in Institute, West Virginia, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Lisa Hechesky/Reuters

West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business Friday after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.

The warnings affect about 300,000 people. There have been no reports of sickness or death, although residents have expressed frustration and anger at authorities and the chemical plant for not informing them of the spill earlier.

“About time you issued this! Communication failure to the public on your part!” a Charleston resident tweeted Thursday at West Virginia American Water, the water company that services the city.

“The water has been contaminated,” West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Thursday evening. The governor didn't know how long the emergency declaration would last. Federal authorities have also declared a disaster in the area, which includes West Virginia American Water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

The state's Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the company responsible for the chemical, Freedom Industries — a producer of chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries — to shut down operations.

No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none were in serious or critical condition, said Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling.

Several lawsuits have already been filed against American Water and Freedom Industries by local businesses and individuals. The Kanawha County Circuit Clerk's office reports that two lawsuits were filed Friday against Freedom Industries. Four other suits named Freedom Industries and West Virginia American Water as defendants.

Tomblin told residents of the affected area that tap water should be used only for flushing toilets, saying the advisory extends to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments.

Officials are not sure what threat the chemical spill poses to humans. Jimmy Glanato, director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the chemical — a coal-refining agent called MCHM — isn't lethal.

However, according to the Toxicology Data Network, high exposures to the chemical can cause death.

On Friday it remained unclear how long it would take before life returns to normal in the region. 

"This could be a matter of hours for some communities, and for other it could be a matter of days," Al Jazeera correspondent Jonathan Martin reported from Charleston. 

Federal authorities on Friday began investigating how the chemical escaped the plant and seeped into the Elk River.

Where the spill happened

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took "no spill containment measures" to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

Freedom Industries issued a statement Friday saying it pledged to work with authorities to stop the leak and determine its scale, local media reported. 

"Our mission now is to move to the next phase of remediation … taking the contaminated dirt off site," Freedom Industries president Gary Southern told reporters Friday, according to the West Virginia State Journal, a business newspaper. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

What is MCHM? 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is a compound used to wash coal of impurities. It is known to pose a significant danger to humans in close contact. Short-term exposure can affect breathing, irritate the skin and eyes and cause skin rashes, and inhalation of the compound can damage vital organs and even prove fatal.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said the advisory affects up to 100,000 customers, or about 300,000 people. 

“We started to respond when the water was impacted,” McIntyre said Friday, responding to criticism that the warnings were not issued immediately after the spill. "We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe."

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it's in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

Once Gov. Tomblin made his declaration Thursday, residents stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up Thursday night 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 spill brought West Virginia's most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and forcing the legislature to cancel its business Friday.

Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled.

"If you are low on bottled water, don't panic because help is on the way," Tomblin said at a news conference Friday afternoon. Tomblin said there was no shortage of bottled water.

At least one charity was collecting donations of bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and other items for people unable to use tap water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland.  

Robert Stiver was unable to find bottled water Friday after trying several stores in Charleston. He worried how he would find drinkable water for his cats. The water at his home had a blue tint and smelled like licorice, he said.

"I'm lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can't get out. They need someone to help them," he said.

That's what 59-year-old Dan Scott was doing — caring for his 81-year-old mother, Bonnie Wireman, and others in the area.

"She takes everything to heart. She forgot a few times and stuck her hand in the kitchen sink. When she realized what she did, she took out alcohol and washed her hands. Scrubbed them. She was really scared," he said.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Freedom Industries was ordered Friday to stop storing chemicals in areas where they could flow into the retention pond that failed in Thursday's leak, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, Aluise said, though officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, he said.

The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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