CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At least 100,000 customers in nine West Virginia counties were told not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes using their tap water because of a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declaring a state of emergency Thursday for all those areas.
The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday. The amount that spilled wasn’t immediately known, but West Virginia American Water has a treatment plant nearby and it is the company’s customers who are affected.
“The water has been contaminated,” said Tomblin, who didn’t know how long the emergency declaration would last.
Officials, though, said they aren’t sure what hazard the spill poses to humans and that there were no immediate reports of people getting sick. It also was not immediately clear how much spilled into the river and in what concentration.
“I don’t know if the water is not safe,” said water company president Jeff McIntyre.
Tomblin said he’s asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist the state with supplies of bottled water. But people weren’t waiting.
Once word got out about the governor’s declaration, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls.
As many as 50 customers had lined up 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 don’t-drink-the-water declaration involves customers in the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. Most of the counties surround the capital city of Charleston, where there was a chemical smell similar to licorice in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply on Thursday night.
West Virginia lawmakers who just started their session this week won’t conduct business on Friday because of the problem and State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed. Many students already missed some time this week because of the frigid weather.
McIntyre said the advisory was issued “because we don’t know. I don’t have anything to indicate the water is not safe. It’s an abundance of caution that we’re taking this step. We don’t do this lightly, tell our customers not to use the water.”
McIntyre said testing is being conducted to determine the concentrations of the chemical that have gone through the water system. But he said the chemical was in a much weaker concentration when it reached the water treatment plant through the river.
“Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can’t say how long this (advisory) will last at this time,” McIntyre said. When the advisory was first issued for five counties, that as many as 100,000 customers were affected. The company has 170,000 customers in 17 West Virginia counties, as well as in Ohio and Virginia.
Freedom Industries did not immediately respond for comment. The Elk River flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Kanawha eventually flows into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, about 55 miles to the northwest.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Martinsburg, said all committee meetings have been canceled and lawmakers will adjourn until at least Monday. Other government offices also will be closed.
Unger, who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources, said dozens of miles of pipe are affected by the spill.
“Flushing it out, that’s going to take some time,” Unger told The Associated Press. “You can imagine the infrastructure of the piping through the city and all of those counties.”