CHARLESTON, W.VA.: On the third day without clean tap water, business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet aisles of merchandise around West Virginia’s capital were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they’ll take from a chemical spill.
Most visitors have cleared out of Charleston while locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find somewhere they can get a hot meal or a shower. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets mean that the spill is an emergency not just for the environment but also for local businesses.
A water company executive said Saturday that it could be days before uncontaminated water is flowing again for about 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. The uncertainty means it’s impossible to estimate the economic impact of the spill yet, said the leader of the local chamber of commerce.
Virtually every restaurant was closed Saturday, unable to use water to prepare food, wash dishes or clean employees’ hands. Meanwhile, hotels had emptied and foot traffic was down at many stores.
“I haven’t been able to cook anything at home and was hoping they were open,” Bill Rogers, 52, said outside a closed Tudor’s Biscuit World in Marmet, just east of Charleston. “It seems like every place is closed. It’s frustrating. Really frustrating.”
In downtown Charleston, the Capitol Street row of restaurants and bars were locked up. Amid them, the Consignment Shop was open, but business was miserable. The second-hand shop’s owner said she relies on customers who come downtown to eat and drink.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Tammy Krepshaw said. “I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It’s sad.”
The person she doesn’t feel bad for is Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, who told reporters the day before that he was having a long day and quickly wrapped up a news conference on the chemical spill so he could fly out of the area.
“People want answers. They deserve answers,” Krepshaw said.
At Charleston’s Yeager Airport, a combined seven inbound and outbound flights were canceled. The reason for the cancellations was an agreement between the airlines and unions for flight crews and pilots that hotels meet a certain threshold of service, and the lack of water violates the agreement, said airport spokesman Brian Belcher.
The emergency began Thursday, when complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odor in the tap water. The source: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that leaked out of a 40,000 gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River. State officials said Saturday they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank — boosting their estimate by more than 2,000 gallons from previous days. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river; it’s not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.
It could take days for clean tap water to flow again. First, water sample test results must consistently show that the chemical’s presence in the public water system is at or below 1 parts per million, the level recommended by federal agencies, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said Saturday at a news conference.
Thirty-two people sought treatment at area hospitals for symptoms such as nausea. Of those, four people were admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center but their conditions weren’t available Saturday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has so far delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or a million liters, to West Virginia for distribution at fire departments and other sites.