By Jonathan Mattise
and Brendan Farrington
CHARLESTON, W.VA.: A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city 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.
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.
Officials are 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 nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.
No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none were in serious or critical condition, said Karen L. Bowling, State Department of Health & Human Resources secretary.
The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning around 10:30 a.m. that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president Gary Southern. Southern said the company 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.
“We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility,” he said.
Southern said he didn’t think the chemical posed a public danger. He also said the company didn’t know how much leaked.
State officials started investigating Thursday when people complained about an odor coming from near the company’s river terminal. Inspectors found a leaking above-ground tank at the site just after 11 a.m. and realized that 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.
The spill brought West Virginia’s most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and even 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.
“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference Friday afternoon. The governor said there was no shortage of bottled water, and that officials were working to get water to those who need it. At least one charity was collecting donations of bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and other items for people unable to use tap water.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland. Several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Co., Tomblin said.