The precautionary automated telephone message issued to residents of nine West Virginia counties was not so precautionary after all, it seems — already, hundreds of W. Va residents have reported symptoms from the chemical spill that hit the Elk River Thursday, contaminating the water supply for thousands and forcing the governor to declare a state of emergency.
In spite of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's warnings to not use water for anything other than fighting fires and flushing toilets, Friday evening saw hundreds of locals calling the West Virginia Poison Center — which had to recruit volunteers and put employees on 16-hour-shifts to deal with the crisis — to complain of health issues related to the spill. By Saturday morning, at least 737 people had reported symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin. Roughly 70 of them were sent to the emergency room, but most were able to treat the health issues at home.
Roughly 300,000 people in nine counties were affected by the spill, and Saturday marks their third day they have to rely on bottled water for drinking, showering, and washing dishes or clothes. The state capital has had to temporarily shut down schools, businesses, and restaurants; water bottles are in short supply; and it's still not clear how long the situation will go on.
According to Tomblin, hourly tests on the affected water show "the chemical level is declining," but, in spite of this, "we're just not sure exactly how long it's going to take before it's acceptable to lift the do-not-drink ban." The chemical itself, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was part of a foaming agent used in coal preparation that leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries on Thursday.
"If you are low on bottled water, don't panic because help is on the way," Tomblin added. Sixteen tractor trailers filled with bottled water have been placed at locations throughout the county as of 8 a.m. ET this morning, and FEMA is also sending out another 75 tractor-trailers with water.
The West Virginia environmental protection department has ordered Freedom Industries to empty the chemicals from its 14 near-river storage tanks and send in a plan to clean up the groundwater within 24 hours.