Chemical spill into W.Va. river spurs closures, run on bottled water

About 300,000 people in West Virginia remained without water for drinking, cooking or bathing Friday as a chemical spill into the Elk River near Charleston closed schools, sharply curtailed commerce and prompted residents to strip grocery shelves of bottled water.

As authorities moved to bring water to people in nine counties, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia opened an investigation into how as much as 5,000 gallons of a chemical used to process coal leaked into the river Thursday and found its way into the treatment plant that supplies water to much of the greater Charleston area.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin(D) and President Obama declared emergencies Friday. Tomblin ordered people in affected areas to “continue to refrain from using the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing and washing.” He said that a testing program had begun and that the National Guard would be bringing water to people in nine counties.

Obama directed the Federal Emergency Management Agencyto assist the state and provide federal funding for the effort. The state legislature, which had just opened its session, canceled business Friday.

“Downtown Charleston is dead,” Mayor Danny Jonessaid in an interview. “It’s not just my city, it’s nine counties. When you don’t have water you can drink or bathe in, you’re pretty much frozen solid.”

Jones said hotels, restaurants and affiliated businesses were closed in the city of 51,000 people, which swells to about 125,000 on an average workday. A convention of mayors and city council members from around the state, scheduled to begin Sunday, has been canceled, he said.

The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a solvent used in processing coal, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industriesand escaped a containment area.

A state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman estimated early Friday that less than 5,000 gallons of the chemical had escaped, but W. Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, said he had “not heard any number that I have confidence in.”

“They’re clueless, or they don’t know,” a clearly irritated Carper said of the chemical company in an interview.

Carper and others said they began to notice a sweet smell in the air around Charleston as early as mid-morning Thursday, but there was no warning from either Freedom Industries or the West Virginia American Water Co. until late afternoon. The water company ordered customers to stop using the water at 5:45 p.m., according to Tom Aluise, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

There was confusion Friday about the reason for the delay, but Carper said the chemical company initially believed that the chemical would largely dissipate on its own because it is not very soluble in water.

“That means that [residents] drank water that has chemicals in it that they’re indicating now is not safe to wash a towel with,” Carper said.

Chemical on the Elk River

Melissa Perry, chairwoman of the department of environment and occupational health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, said 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a solvent that is only 4 percent soluble in water. Its main danger, she said, comes from exposure to skin or inhalation, raising concerns for workers who will be involved in the cleanup. Symptoms would include eye, skin and respiratory tract irritation.

Animal studies show that ingestion poses a health threat to humans only in concentrations greater than 500 parts per million. As a result, it is prudent to issue a no-use order until authorities can determine how much went into the water supply, she said.

Some residents were taking no chances. Leah Devine, a middle school Spanish teacher, said she had given bottled water she stores in her garage to friends and was heading to her parents home in Elkins, W.Va., which was not affected.

She said she noticed an odor in her water while showering about 4 p.m. Thursday but decided it was inconsequential. “It smelled sweet, like candy,” she said.

On Friday she said, “My stomach hurts a little. I hope it’s just stress and eating very little. I’m very concerned with my friend’s 2-year-old.” The child has stomach problems that may be just a virus, she said.

Bill Price, a staffer for the Sierra Club who lives in Charleston about a mile and a half from the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers, said in an interview that the odor Thursday led residents to believe that there had been a release of chemicals into the air before word began to spread about the spill into the river.

“We’re being told that this is not a toxic chemical,” he said. “But then at the same time, we’re not allowed to bathe in it.”

Price said he was drinking orange juice Friday morning and planned to go out later to see whether water was available. Carper said that major chains such as Wal-Mart were bringing as much bottled water into the area as they could and that firefighters were beginning to distribute water from unaffected sources. Residents were being urged to bring containers to distribution points so they could transport water home.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern issued a statement saying that “our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination.” Southern said the company is trying to determine how much of the chemical was released and is “following all necessary steps to fix the issue.”

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said federal authorities are opening an investigation into what caused the spill, which affected Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

“Yesterday’s release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy and upended people’s daily lives,” Goodwin said in a statement. “We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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