CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city, Charleston, stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.
As people awoke to learn their tap water was unsafe for brushing teeth, brewing coffee or showering, residents and businesses expressed a mix of anger and anxiety in coping with an industrial accident with no clear end in sight.
Schools were closed, restaurants locked their doors and hotels refused reservations. Store shelves were quickly stripped of bottled water, and traffic snarled as drivers waited to fill jugs from tankers delivered by the National Guard.
“It’s worrying me so much I’m having chest pains,” said Cookie Lilly, 71, who waited with her husband to get a ration of 4 gallons of water at the South Charleston Community Center.
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Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who ordered the ban on drinking, bathing and cooking with tap water in Charleston and nine surrounding counties, called on people not to panic.
“Help is on the way,” he said. “There is no shortage of bottled water. Supplies are moving into the area as we speak.”
Asked at a news conference about his “personal hygiene,” the governor sought a touch of levity. “It would be great to hop in a hot shower, but we’ll get through it,” he said. “We’re tough West Virginians.”
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant Thursday and seeped into the Elk River.
The primary component in the foaming agent is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM. The agent is mixed with ground-up coal to separate it from soil and rock particles, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. After the coal is cleansed, the leftover mixtures of chemicals and mud are piped to slurry ponds, where much of the chemical mixture is stored until reused.
Officials were working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday. For now, 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.
Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people across the nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea. People have been told not to use it for cleaning. The only exception: flushing toilets.
No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none was in serious condition, said state Health Secretary Karen Bowling.
The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president, Gary Southern.
Southern said the company, which processes and stores chemicals used in the coal industry, worked all day and through the night to remove the chemical from the site and take it elsewhere. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the chemical from the ground at the site.
Southern said he didn’t think the chemical posed a public danger. He also said the company didn’t know how much had leaked.
As President Obama declared a federal emergency in the state, Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said his office and “other federal law-enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.”
State officials started investigating Thursday when people complained about an odor coming from near the company’s river terminal. Inspectors found a leaking aboveground tank at the site and realized no one was trying to contain the spill, according to officials at the Department of Environmental Protection.
The chemical was seeping through a containment dike, a backup intended to catch spills.
State environmental officials ordered the company late Friday to start removing chemicals from its 14 aboveground storage tanks within 24 hours.
Within a day, the company must also submit a corrective action plan that includes steps to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater.
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 for the day. Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to deliver more than a million liters of water. Several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Gov. Tomblin said.
However, it appeared that some level of panic had set in. At the Kroger store in the shadow of a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, people scrambled in the aisles to find bottled water, only to learn the store had been out since early Friday.
Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that store after trying at least a dozen others in the area and worried about how he’d make sure his cats had drinkable water.
“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.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.