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State of emergency declared in West Virginia as industrial chemical contaminates water supply

Posted: January 10, 2014 |   Comments

( West Virginia Governor Earl Tomblin declared a state of emergency in nine counties Thursday evening after a chemical spill in the Elk River contaminated local water supplies. Almost 200,000 West Virginians are now being warned not to drink tap water or cook, shower, brush their teeth or wash their clothes with it or use it for any other purpose other than flushing toilets and putting out fires.

The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, an antifoaming agent used to process coal, leaked from an unexplained hole in a 48,000-gallon storage tank at the Freedom Industries facility near the Elk River in Charleston. It then made its way down the river to a West Virginia American Water Company treatment plant, contaminating the water system.

IBTimes reports that the "leak was detected after customers complained about a black licorice-like odor emanating from the tap water."

This contradicts a statement by American Water Co. spokeswoman Laura Jordan, whom CNN reported to say that "she first suspected something was amiss Thursday morning when she noticed an odor like licorice in the air en route to work."

Further contradicting reports of customer complaints, Jordan stated, "What the public should realize is the chemical did not move downstream and into the water treatment facility, where it was detected by odor, until about 4 p.m."

The Department of Environmental Protection and the Emergency Operations Center investigated the odor and found the chemical leak at the Freedom Industries plant. A do-not-use advisory was then issued at just before 6 p.m.

Exposure to the chemical has been associated with the following health effects:

  • Seizures
  • Ataxia
  • Lacrimation
  • Corneal necrosis
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Kidney, liver and vascular injury
  • Myocardial necrosis
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Irritation of mucous membranes
  • Headache
  • Tremor
  • Central nervous system depression
  • Reduced fertility

The water company is working with DuPont and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the level of contamination. Officials are unsure of how long it will take to remove the chemical, as the water cannot be treated and will have to be systematically flushed, Jordan told reporters.

After the state of emergency was declared, residents quickly emptied local stores of water bottles. Jordan said dozens of water tankers had arrived by Friday morning to provide relief, and the water company has also bought four truckloads of bottled water. FEMA, the West Virginia National Guard and various county agencies are helping to distribute clean water, with priority given to hospitals and nursing homes.

The nine counties affected by the state of emergency are Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties. Residents served by Lincoln PSD, Queen Shoals PSD, Reamer PSD, City of Culloden PSD, and City of Hurricane PSD are also affected.

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