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Water warning now in 9 counties; emergency supplies on order

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A state of emergency has been declared in nine counties where West Virginia American Water customers are being advised not to drink, cook with, bathe in or boil their water after the company's water supply was contaminated by a chemical leak early Thursday.

The chemical leak was stopped about two hours after it was reported. State officials have said they believe the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, could still be in the ground near the spill. They are working on a plan to completely address any soil contamination. There is a chance some of the chemical is still leaching into the Elk River, a Department of Environmental Protection official said Friday. Measures have been taken to limit any additional chemical runoff.

The contaminated water affects about 100,000 of the company's 171,000 customers.

The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing leaked out of a 40,000-gallon holding tank along the Elk River.

An unknown amount of that 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of leaked chemical then leaked through a secondary barrier and seeped through the ground and into the river, according to state officials.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged affected West Virginia American Water customers in Kanawha, Putnam, Jackson, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Boone counties, as well as customers in the area of Culloden in Cabell County, to stop using water for everything other than flushing toilets and fire suppression.

"Do not drink it. Do not cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it," Tomblin said. "For safety, we would ask everyone -- this includes restaurants, hospitals, any institutions out there -- please do not use any tap water if you're a customer of West Virginia American Water.

"If you're going to drink water you should get bottled water."

Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for Kanawha and Putnam counties, ordered all health department permit holding establishments, including restaurants, schools, nursing homes and hospitals, to shut down until the State of Emergency is lifted, said John Law, spokesman for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

Law said hospitals and nursing homes likely would continue to operate as they typically have supplies for emergency situations.

School systems such as those in Kanawha, Putnam, Clay and Lincoln counties were announcing closures for Friday. 

Thomas and St. Francis hospitals have advised staff not to use tap water for any purpose other than flushing the toilet and have turned off ice machines, self-filling coffeemakers and other water drawing devices, said Paige Johnson, a spokeswoman for the hospitals.

She said both hospitals have activated the Emergency Operations Plan and that additional staff wasn't needed at either hospital.

"We are working on contingency plans for alternate water supply," Johnson said in an email. "Bottled water will be distributed to the patient care areas. This water should be used for drinking ONLY and should be used sparingly until additional water is obtained or the order not to use the tap water has been lifted."

It isn't known how long the water ban will be in effect. The state of emergency will be in place until the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection gave the OK on the water.

Tomblin said as of Thursday night the only place for West Virginia American Water customers to get water would be to buy bottled water at local stores. He said the state has already contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance in getting more water to residents.

Jimmy Gianato, state homeland security director, said it would take time to get the additional water supplies to the area. He expected it would be delivered to the West Virginia National Guard base in Charleston and then distributed through county emergency operations centers.

Lt. Col. Todd Harrell of the West Virginia National Guard said water would be available at the Boone County 911 Center in Danville. Starting at 9 a.m. Friday, small amounts of water will be available at Duvall and Hamlin VFDs. Those who go there will need an ID and proof of residency. 

People can pick up larger amounts of water at West Hamlin VFD and the Lincoln Primary Care Center. They should bring their own container. Distribution starts at 9 a.m.

It isn't known how long the water ban will be in effect. The state of emergency would be in place until the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection gave the OK on the water.

Water was expected to be available Friday afternoon in Cabell County at the Culloden Volunteer Fire Department, in Putnam County at the Winfield courthouse and at the Charleston Civic Center. 

On Thursday evening, bottled water was swiftly sold out at many area stores.

Sam's Club at Southridge Centre, for example, had 4,200 cases of water sell out in an hour and a half. Store employees called around a 20-mile radius in a search for more water but found none. 

St. Albans police said Kroger and Kmart in that city were out of water.

Kanawha County officials were urging people to stop rushing to stores to buy water.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement late Thursday reminding businesses and consumers about state laws barring sellers from inflating the price of water and other goods during a state of emergency.

"We are hearing reports of price gouging going on already in the region," Morrisey said. "It is illegal and just plain wrong for a business to take advantage of consumers and West Virginians during an emergency."

Morrisey urged residents to report any business or individual that has dramatically increased the price of water, ice or other goods in response to the water emergency in the affected counties.

He said reports can be made by calling his office's Consumer Protection Division at (800) 368-8808. He said consumers who paid high prices should make a copy of their receipt, if they still have it, and attach that copy to their complaint.

Water customers who get water from the Putnam Public Service District and cities of St. Albans and Cedar Grove are not affected.

The St. Albans system draws its water from the Coal River, and the Cedar Grove system draws from the Kanawha River, but several miles upriver from the Elk's confluence with the Kanawha. East Bank also uses Cedar Grove water.

The water situation arose following a chemical leak Thursday morning at Freedom Industries, which makes specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, according to the company's website.

Kanawha County officials began receiving reports of a strong licorice smell throughout the valley at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday. They tracked it down to Freedom Industries, located on Barlow Drive just outside of Charleston.

The smell was caused by one of the company's products, which had leaked from a containment area into the Elk River, said C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County Deputy Emergency Manager.

"A tank leaked and the containment area didn't hold it," he said. "The product escaped into the river."

The leaked product was 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, which is used in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation.

Officials from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection who were on site Thursday afternoon saw no immediate threat from the chemical, Sigman said.

The product's safety data sheet does not indicate a toxic level for inhalation, he said. However, the DEP did pick up an objectionable level of odor in the environment.

"It smells like licorice," Sigman said. "The company never called us. We figured out what it was by the smell and figured out who used it."

Jeff McIntyre, West Virginia American Water president, said the chemical spill is affecting the water service for up to 100,000 of the company's 171,000 customers statewide.

The water treatment plant is still running, he said, to maintain fire protection and sanitation services.

He said the company is conducting sampling and testing on the water to try to better understand how much of the chemical has gone through the water system.

McIntyre said to his understanding the chemical isn't "particularly lethal" in its "strong" form and that the chemical was diluted when it entered the river.

He said water officials were discussing a water ban by 4:30 p.m. and made the decision to do so shortly thereafter. The decision was announced publicly at a 5:45 p.m. press conference. 

"We were fairly confident earlier today that our water treatment plant with the activated carbon treatment plant could handle any issues that we had, but it's clear that that (chemical) has migrated through to our finished water," McIntryre said.

"It is affecting customers and therefore there is a 'Do not use' water notice for all customers of West Virginia American Water in Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Putnam and Jackson counties," he said.

The notice was later expanded to customers in Clay, Logan and Roane counties, as well as those in the Culloden area of Cabell County.

McIntyre said people need to heed the warnings, and said the company didn't issue the ban lightly.

Boiling water will not help, he said.

McIntyre said the chemical isn't something the company would normally see in water treatment and that they still are looking into the chemical itself. He said the company has been in contact with the chemical's manufacturer in Tennessee.

McIntyre said there was a possibility Thursday evening that the chemical may already have been dissipating, but that officials wouldn't be able to put a timetable on lifting the water ban until they flushed the system and tested the water. 

"We know that there's a contaminant in the distribution system," McIntyre said. "It'll get moved from leaks, it'll get moved from people using their commodes but we will have to do extensive flushing on the system to move this -- to purge the system of this contaminant. Then we'll have to test along the way to make sure we're comfortable that it's out of the system before we'll say to customers, 'Use the water.'

It was not immediately known if the product getting into the river would pose a hazard to fish or wildlife.

An environmental company was on site cleaning up the spill on Thursday afternoon.

A woman who answered the telephone at Freedom Industries on Thursday afternoon said nobody was available to comment. "They are all out in the field right now," she said.

 According to the company's website, "Freedom Industries is a full service producer of specialty chemicals for mining, steel, and cement industries."

The company has been in operation since 1992, and also facilities in Nitro.

According to the company's website, its location near Charleston has 4 million gallons of chemical storage capacity and two computer controlled truck loading stations designed to process large volumes of chemicals rapidly and cost effectively.

If residents have consumed the water late Thursday afternoon and are experiencing severe symptoms -- severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin blistering or irritation -- should call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 or go to an emergency room.

Those who consumed the water but are not experiencing symptoms most likely will not be affected.

 

 


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