CHARLESTON — The U.S. attorney in West Virginia says federal authorities are opening an investigation into what caused a chemical spill that tainted a river and shut down much of the state's capital city and surrounding counties.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday that his office and other agencies will investigate the circumstances surrounding the release and determine what caused it. He says authorities will take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence found.
The chemical, used in coal processing, spilled from a Freedom Industries plant into the Elk River in Charleston. Officials have ordered people not to drink, cook with or bathe in tap water, forcing people to scramble for bottled water.
How much of the chemical spill, and the extent of the danger, remains unclear.
Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the extent of the danger remained unclear.
The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. In requesting the federal declaration, which makes federal resources available to the state, state officials said about 300,000 people were affected.
Federal authorities are also launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill and what caused it, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday.
Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customers of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.
The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Officials from Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, hadn’t commented since the spill, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said it would issue a statement later Friday.
Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear exactly how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.
The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. “We’re confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped,” he said. “A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained.”
Agency officials do not know how long the chemical had been leaking, Aluise said in a telephone interview. There was a breach in a concrete wall that served as a containment area to prevent spills from leaving the storage site, he said.
“Our understanding is it’s not an especially toxic material. It’s not dangerous necessarily to be around,” he said.