Chemical Spill Shocks Charleston, WV

Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day's business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the extent of the danger remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. In requesting the federal declaration, which makes federal resources available to the state, state officials said roughly 300,000 people were affected.

Federal authorities are also launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday.

The chemicals, from Freedom Industries, hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customers of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, said in a news release Friday that the company is working to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. President Gary Southern also said the company still does not know how much of the chemical spilled from its operation into the river.

Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear exactly how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped," he said. "A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained."

Agency officials do not know how long the chemical had been leaking, Aluise said in a telephone interview. There was a breach in a concrete wall that served as a containment area to prevent spills from leaving the storage site, he said.

"Our understanding is it's not an especially toxic material. It's not dangerous necessarily to be around," he said.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed — and could be so if inhaled — and causes eye and skin irritation. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddened skin, itching and rashes, according to a news release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Freedom Industries will be responsible for cleanup at the site, Aluise said.

McIntyre said the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was planning to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland, but the first shipments were not expected to arrive until Friday night.

Once word got out about the governor's declaration Thursday, 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.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it "just plain wrong" to inflate prices and encouraging those who've seen such practices to report them to his office's consumer protection division.

Although the governor noted that the water advisory extended to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water, state public safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said Friday that he wasn't aware of any hospitals closing and that medical centers "seemed to have adequate water supply, at least for the short term."

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