So much for fresh breath. Residents of nine West Virginia counties have been told not to use the tap water after a chemical spill Thursday near Charleston into the Elk River. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to help get bottled water to the 100,000 affected residents. Schools are also shut for the day. The spill was of a foaming agent used in coal preparation that leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, located near a West Virginia American Water treatment facility.
"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Tomblin said. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools."
Tomblin declared the water "contaminated," and residents are to only use tap water for "flushing toilets and fighting fires." However, other officials aren't sure how hazardous the spill was and say the caution, issued via automated telephone message, is, in fact, just a precaution. The chemical itself — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — isn't lethal, said water company president Jeff McIntyre.
"I don't know if the water is not safe," water company president Jeff McIntyre said. "Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can’t say how long this will last at this time.”
That said, the National Institute for Health approaches it like a toxic chemical if ingested, and state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Tom Aluise said it's harmful if swallowed. Regardless, West Virginians aren't taking any chances: Grocery store shelves are empty where there were once paper plates, and bottled water is going fast as police officers stand guard to make sure chaos doesn't break out. FEMA is also sending in 75 tractor-trailers with water to deliver supplies to residents.
"People have been grabbing it like crazy," Kerstin Halstead said. "Some people were getting — well, they could have shared more."
Residents first reported the spill when Charleston began to smell like licorice.
“They called the Sissonville Fire Department out because people could smell it up on I-77. They also called the Charleston Fire Department because they could smell it along Garrison Avenue,” Kanawha County fire coordinator, C.W. Sigman, said. “I was familiar with the product because I’ve dealt with it before and, as soon as I smelled it, I said, ‘I know what this is.’”