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 affected water, 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 was in serious or critical condition, said State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling.
The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning about 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.
He also said more than once that it had been a “long day” for him and others at the company. After six minutes, Southern attempted to leave the news conference but was asked more questions.
“Look guys. It has been an extremely long day,” Southern said. “I have trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate if we could wrap this thing up.”
The news conference ended a few minutes after that.
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.
State environmental officials ordered the company late Friday to start removing chemicals from its 14 above-ground storage tanks within 24 hours. Authorities said the chemicals must be stored somewhere that has a working containment system. Within a day, the company must also submit a corrective action plan that includes steps to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater.
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.
However, it appeared that some level of panic already had set in to some degree. At the Kroger grocery store in the shadow of a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, people scrambled in the aisles to find bottled water, only to learn the store had been out since early Friday.
Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that store after trying at least a dozen others in the area and worried about how he’d make sure his cats had drinkable water. The water at his home had a blue tint and smelled like licorice, he said.
“I’m lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can’t get out. They need someone to help them,” he said.
That’s what 59-year-old Dan Scott was doing: Taking care of his 81-year-old mother, Bonnie Wireman, and others in the area.
“She takes everything to heart. She forgot a few times and stuck her hand in the kitchen sink. When she realized what she did, she took out alcohol and washed her hands. Scrubbed them. She was really scared,” he said.
Inside Kroger, there were signs that the chemical spills had affected business. Anything that used water—from the deli counter to the produce section—was either closed or had a limited supply.
Outside the restrooms, a handmade sign told the story: Because of a chemical spill in the Elk River, the store was advising people not to use the water fountain. The bathroom sinks were wrapped in plastic.
Health officials were even cracking down on bars, telling owners they could serve only bottled beer and that they had to have an outside water supply for hand washing. Drinks couldn’t be served even in plastic cups and sanitizers weren’t enough for disinfecting hands.
Freedom Industries was ordered to stop storing chemicals in areas where they could flow into the containment dike that failed in Thursday’s leak, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.
The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, Aluise said, though officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, he said.
The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.
The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. The agent is mixed with ground-up coal to separate it from soil and rock particles, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. After the coal is cleansed, the leftover mixtures of chemicals and mud are piped to slurry ponds, where much of the chemical mixture is stored until re-used.
The chemical is water-soluble, meaning it cannot be removed with surface booms that are sometimes effective in capturing spilled oil.
The chemical evaporates easily, which explains the smell that many people reported, said Capt. Larry Cseh, environmental health scientist with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The West Virginia National Guard has been running hourly tests on the chemical‘s concentration since Thursday night. A safe level is 1 part per million. The level has dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million, said Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, Adjutant General of West Virginia.
At 0.1 parts per million, the licorice smell and blue-green tint would disappear from the water, Hoyer said.
Even at its current concentrations, however, the chemical is unlikely to cause any serious harm, Ziemkiewicz said.
“You’d have to drink something like 1,700 gallons of water to even approach a lethal dose,” he said. If a person drank a glass or two of tainted water, “I would be astonished if that caused any serious problems.”