Coal-processing chemicals spill into West Virginia river, polluting drinking water for 200,000 people

By Ashley Southall and Timothy Williams / New York Times

Nearly 200,000 people in Charleston, W.Va., and nine surrounding counties were without drinking water on Friday after a chemical spill contaminated supplies, the West Virginia governor’s office said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said early Friday in a statement that the federal government had approved a request of assistance in dealing with the chemical spill into the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River at Charleston.

“West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing,” Mr. Tomblin said in declaring a state of emergency. The warning affected customers of the West Virginia American Water Company in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane Counties.

Many stores in the area quickly ran out of bottled water Thursday night as residents rushed to stock up, according to local news media reports. Restaurants and businesses closed, and The Associated Press reported that schools as well as the State Legislature had canceled sessions on Friday.

The spill was discovered Thursday at a storage facility about a mile north of a water treatment plant on the Elk River, where a 48,000-gallon tank began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, a compound used to wash coal of impurities, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The chemical leaked from a hole in the bottom of the tank and then filled an overflow container before spilling into the river, said Thomas J. Aluise, a spokesman for the agency.

It is not clear how much of the chemical flowed into the river, which Mr. Aluise said looked like “cooking oil floating on top of the water.”

The chemical, which smells like licorice, is not toxic, but can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

Freedom Industries, the company that owns the storage tank, has not responded to emails seeking comment.

Liza Cordeiro, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, said schools in at least five counties would be closed Friday.

On the Facebook page of the West Virginia American Water Company, dozens of residents expressed concern that they had not been immediately told about the chemical leak or the potential for health risks.

“Yeah, so I’m six months pregnant and drank tap water at a restaurant about an hour before the notice was sent out,” one woman wrote.

From The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?_r=0

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