CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Water company officials still do not know how long it's going to take remove an unknown amount of a hazardous chemical that contaminated water for potentially 300,000 people.
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said the company is still learning about the chemical and how to remove it from the 1,500 miles of pipeline that could be affected.
The do-not-use order is the largest that West Virginia American Water has ever issued, McIntyre said.
"We haven't had a situation like this where we've had a 'do-not-use' (advisory) of this magnitude," McIntyre said.
He stressed the company is not positive the water is dangerous, but they determined there's the possibility. The substance doesn't have a "high lethality," but they didn't want to take any chances, he said.
McIntyre explained the company has a filtration process that is able to clean their water, taken from the Elk River for a large treatment center. The process is extensive but does not address this particular chemical, known as crude MCHM.
The company was notified by local emergency services personnel about the leak about noon Thursday, McIntyre said. They knew about the leak all afternoon, but felt confident their filtration process was doing a sufficient job of cleaning the water, he said.
At about 4 p.m., McIntyre said the company determined the chemical had "overwhelmed" the plant's capacity to keep it out of the water. He said they made that decision after they were able to smell a black licorice odor on water that had already passed through the system.
He acknowledged the company may not have been able to detect the chemical without the overwhelming odor, and they know very little about its properties. He said he spoke with a toxicologist who said some test results in rats led the expert to believe it would take consuming a "considerable" amount of the substance to have a negative affect on a person.
Those tests are on a small scale and there haven't been many, he said. He also didn't quantify "considerable."
The chemical isn't one that typically spills in water, McIntyre said. Because of this, the company doesn't know how much of can be safely be in the water or how to get rid of it.
At no point during this process has West Virginia American Water had substantive communication with Freedom Industries, the company that owns storage unit and chemical that leaked. McIntyre said he hadn't spoken with anyone from the company.