CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Riverside High and Midland Trail Elementary schools dismissed students early Wednesday morning after water flushing at the schools produced a strong, licorice-like odor, causing illness for some students and staff.
An ambulance was sent to Riverside Wednesday morning, a 911 dispatcher confirmed. The emergency call was for one patient - a juvenile male who was disoriented and had high blood pressure.
During Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's press conference with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control Wednesday afternoon, State Superintendent of Schools James Phares said a teacher at Riverside High School fainted because of the odor. That teacher was also taken to a hospital.
Phares said complaints of lightheadedness, burning eyes and burning noses were received from both schools.
The symptoms and odor are consistent with the presence of the coal-cleaning agent crude MCHM. More than 10,000 gallons of the chemical leaked in early January through a tank and containment wall at Freedom Industries, located about 1.5 miles up the Elk River from West Virginia American Water's intake.
A Midland Trail teacher, who asked not to be identified by name out of fear of losing her job, said maintenance crews from Kanawha County Schools turned on all faucets in the school at about 8:30 a.m.
She said the licorice-like odor caused problems in the school throughout the morning: Students asked to call home because of headaches, a cook said she nearly passed out, and about 10 teachers complained of either headaches, nausea or sore throats.
Paige Walker, a 10-year-old student at Midland Trail Elementary School, said she noticed the smell at about 8:45 a.m. while she was in math class.
"It was a very, very strong smell of licorice or cough medicine or something like that," Paige said.
Paige added the smell was stronger in the area of the school where pre-K and kindergarten students were.
Officials decided to close the schools Wednesday morning to finish the process.
"We're going to wait until the children are gone and everybody's out of the building and then we'll finish up," said Terry Hollandsworth, Kanawha County Schools maintenance director.
Reporters grilled EPA and CDC officials with questions regarding student and teacher illnesses from the licorice-like odor during Tomblin's press conference.
Tanja Popovic, CDC's acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health, did not make a connection between symptoms experienced at the schools and the presence of a licorice-like odor.
"It's very hard for me to say now these symptoms are associated with MCHM when the levels are non-detectable," Popovic said.
Shawn Garvin, administrator for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region, suggested factors other than crude MCHM could have played a factor in the outbreak of illness.
"To my understanding, there were other issues going on in the school, as well, not necessarily related to this," Garvin said in reference to a water main break in Belle last weekend that caused one of West Virginia American Water's storage tanks to drain, sending brown water into the two schools.
Phares stood by the experts' opinions. He said the public should trust their recommendations and have faith in how state officials are handling things.
"It seems like we've lost something. We've got to trust each other, and that's what I've done through this whole process," Phares said. "I've trusted direction from the governor's office, I've trusted direction and the assistance that we've got from (West Virginia National Guard Adj.) Gen. (James) Hoyer."
The water main break over the weekend prompted West Virginia American Water to issue a precautionary boil water advisory for areas around Riverside along U.S. 60, the town of Pratt and Crown Hill. Upon inspection, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department asked school officials not to use the water for anything but flushing toilets until the water company could flush its storage systems.
By Wednesday morning, the health department had given the school system the go-ahead to begin flushing the pipes in response to the water main break. Hollandsworth said he made the decision to have maintenance staff arrive at the schools at 6 a.m. Wednesday to begin the process.