HARPER'S FERRY, W.Va. - More than 100,000 homes, businesses and hospitals in nine counties around Charleston, W. Va., are without water due to a chemical leak into the Elk River, which serves as a primary drinking water source for an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced a state of emergency today, banning the use of water except to flush toilets or put out fires in some of the counties. President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration for the state, triggering immediate federal aid to the residents. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Air National Guard were coordinating efforts to get water to the affected area.
The West Virginia legislature has been shutdown. Schools had been ordered closed today in Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Jackson, Clay and Lincoln counties as of last night. Effects of consuming the chemical were described as severe vomiting, skin rashes, and possible fatality. Wastewater treatment officials had little knowledge of the leaked chemical and were cautious predicting its health impact in the water supply.
A state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson said, the chemical, known as "4-methylcyclohexane methanol," is a "sudsing agent" and used in the processing of coal.
Hours after water company officials said their treatment facility -- which is near the leak site on the Elk River -- could handle the leak, the governor announced, "Nobody really knows how dangerous it could be. However, it is in the system. It's just so important, according to the health department, as well as [the water company]: Please don't drink, don't wash with, don't do anything with the water."
Freedom Industries, a chemical manufacturer for mining, steel and cement industries, is responsible for the spill. DEP investigators discovered the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, and had overwhelmed a concrete dike meant to serve as "secondary containment" around the tank after receiving complaints of a strange odor. The chemical "was going over the hill into the river," according to Mike Dorsey, director of emergency response and homeland security for the state DEP. Dorsey told the Charleston Gazette, "Apparently, it had been leaking for some time. We just don't know how long."
Freedom Industries had not "self-reported" the leak to regulatory agencies as required by law and have made no public comment so far.
Ironically, just two days after what editorial writers called an "uplifting State of the State" address to the opening of the West Virginia legislature, the governor vowed to not "back down" in fighting the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act for mountaintop removal mining operations. He also announced a billion dollar construction project on a modern "cracker" plant for processing shale gas from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling.
After the announcement that no water should be used to drink, cook or wash with, residents swarmed grocery stores, convenience stores and anywhere else with bottled water and shelves were quickly depleted. Fistfights erupted over water in a local Walmart.
It is not clear how much flushing of water pipes will be required to rid the system of the toxic chemical. The WV-DEP spokesperson said, "It could take some time ... to get the system flushed clean because some of these pipes go out as far as 60 miles."
Water was being transported into the affected counties, and emergency officials said they planned to set up distribution centers. The Charleston Gazette reported that Col. Mike Cadle at the state Air National Guard said 51 tractor-trailers loaded with water were headed to West Virginia from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Maryland. A cargo aircraft was sent to Martinsburg, W. Va., near western Maryland, to pick up the water and fly it back to Yeager Airport in Charleston.
Photo:A customer gets the last few bottles of water at the Kroger in South Charleston W.Va. after being told to not drink water supplied by West Virginia American Water. Tyler Evert /AP