West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for five counties Thursday night because of a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, advising residents not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes in the water and to only use it for flushing.
The chemical, used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area on Thursday. The amount that spilled isn’t immediately known, but a West Virginia American Water has a treatment plant nearby. Freedom Industries did not immediately respond for comment.
The declaration involves customers of West Virginia American Water in the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Jackson, Lincoln and Putnam. Water company President Jeff McIntyre said the advisory affects up to 100,000 customers.
“The water has been contaminated,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin said the advisory also extends to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water.
Officials are not sure what threat the chemical spill poses to humans. McIntyre and state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management director Jimmy Gianato said the chemical isn’t lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
The Elk River flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Kanawha eventually flows into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, about 55 miles to the northwest.
A chemical smell similar to licorice was detected in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply on Thursday night.
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department spokesman John Law said restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and other establishments with health permits are being asked to “cease operations.” But with the notice going out at the dinner hour, it wasn’t immediately known how wide a net the do-not-use advisory was cast.
Two fast-food restaurants near the state Capitol, a few miles from the spill site, were closed, but across the street, a pizza shop remained open.
The West Virginia Department of Education also notified school systems in the five counties and said no decision was immediately made whether to call off classes Friday, spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said.
“The things we have to think about in schools are washing hands, but beyond that, making lunches,” she said. “At this point we’ve put those counties on standby. We will be back in touch with them. We’re going to ... hold off for a little bit and see what happens.”
Tomblin said he’s asking Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist the state with supplies of bottled water.