M/sunny
76°
M/sunny
Hi 84° | Lo 64°

Chemical spill brings W.Va. capital to standstill

  • Workers pump 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process,  out of a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.  The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

    Workers pump 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, out of a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

  • The West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River is closed following a 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leak from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.  The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

    The West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River is closed following a 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leak from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

  • A worker at the West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River breaks ice to take water samples, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. The chemical b4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver, on Thurday in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where the spill may have contaminated tap water, officials told at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.  (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

    A worker at the West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River breaks ice to take water samples, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. The chemical b4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver, on Thurday in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where the spill may have contaminated tap water, officials told at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

  • Jimmy Gianato, the director of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, at podium, addresses reporters during a press conference about the regional water contamination late Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.  in Charleston, W.Va.  With him are West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre,left,  West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, right.  (AP Photo,Tom Hindman)

    Jimmy Gianato, the director of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, at podium, addresses reporters during a press conference about the regional water contamination late Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. in Charleston, W.Va. With him are West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre,left, West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, right. (AP Photo,Tom Hindman)

  • Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., is shown on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. A chemical leak at the plant on Thursday has prompted a state of emergency for parts of nine West Virginia counties after contaminating water that was taken in from the nearby Elk River. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)

    Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., is shown on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. A chemical leak at the plant on Thursday has prompted a state of emergency for parts of nine West Virginia counties after contaminating water that was taken in from the nearby Elk River. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)

  • This Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 photo shows a stretch of the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

    This Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 photo shows a stretch of the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

  • Charleston resident Niru Parikshak loads up the back of her car with bottled water Thursday Jan. 9, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. . Sam's Club and every retailer for a twenty mile radius sold out of bottled water after a chemical leak Thursday morning up river from the WV American Plant on the Elk River forced the water plant to shut down. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)

    Charleston resident Niru Parikshak loads up the back of her car with bottled water Thursday Jan. 9, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. . Sam's Club and every retailer for a twenty mile radius sold out of bottled water after a chemical leak Thursday morning up river from the WV American Plant on the Elk River forced the water plant to shut down. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)

  • Workers pump 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process,  out of a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.  The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
  • The West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River is closed following a 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leak from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.  The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
  • A worker at the West Virginia American Water Co. intake facility on the Elk River breaks ice to take water samples, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. The chemical b4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked from a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver, on Thurday in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where the spill may have contaminated tap water, officials told at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.  (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
  • Jimmy Gianato, the director of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, at podium, addresses reporters during a press conference about the regional water contamination late Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.  in Charleston, W.Va.  With him are West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre,left,  West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, right.  (AP Photo,Tom Hindman)
  • Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, in Charleston, W.Va., is shown on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. A chemical leak at the plant on Thursday has prompted a state of emergency for parts of nine West Virginia counties after contaminating water that was taken in from the nearby Elk River. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)
  • This Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 photo shows a stretch of the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va. The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes. The West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
  • Charleston resident Niru Parikshak loads up the back of her car with bottled water Thursday Jan. 9, 2014 in Charleston, W.Va. . Sam's Club and every retailer for a twenty mile radius sold out of bottled water after a chemical leak Thursday morning up river from the WV American Plant on the Elk River forced the water plant to shut down. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak)

A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying yesterday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.

Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River in Charleston, W. Va. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.

Officials were working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much could be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.

“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said yesterday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.

Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people across nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none was in serious or critical condition, said state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling.

The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning about 10:30 that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president, Gary Southern. Southern said the company worked all day and through the night to remove the chemical from the site and take it elsewhere. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the chemical from the ground at the site.

“We have the mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility,” he said.

Southern said he didn’t think the chemical posed a public danger, but also that the company doesn’t know how much leaked.

After six minutes, Southern attempted to leave the news conference but was asked more questions.

“Look guys. It has been an extremely long day,” Southern said. “I have trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate if we could wrap this thing up.”

State officials started investigating Thursday when people complained about an odor coming from near the company’s river terminal. Inspectors found a leaking above-ground tank at the site just after 11 a.m. and realized that no one was trying to contain the spill, according to officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection. The chemical was seeping through a containment dike, a backup intended to catch spills.

The spill brought West Virginia’s most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and even forcing the Legislature to cancel its business for the day. Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled.

“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. The governor said there was no shortage of bottled water, and that officials were working to get water to those who need it. At least one charity was collecting donations of bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and other items for people unable to use tap water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from Maryland. Several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Co., Tomblin said.

However, it appeared that some level of panic had set in to some degree. At the Kroger grocery store in the shadow of a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, people scrambled in the aisles to find bottled water, only to learn the store had been out since early yesterday.

Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that store after trying at least a dozen others in the area and worried about how he’d make sure his cats had drinkable water. The water at his home had a blue tint and smelled like licorice, he said.

“I’m lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can’t get out. They need someone to help them,” he said.

That’s what 59-year-old Dan Scott was doing: taking care of his 81-year-old mother, Bonnie Wireman, and others in the area.

“She takes everything to heart. She forgot a few times and stuck her hand in the kitchen sink. When she realized what she did, she took out alcohol and washed her hands. Scrubbed them. She was really scared,” he said.

Inside Kroger, there were signs that the chemical spill had affected business. Anything that used water – from the deli counter to the produce section – was either closed or had a limited supply.

Outside the restrooms, a handmade sign told the story: Because of a chemical spill in the Elk River, the store was advising people not to use the water fountain. The bathroom sinks were wrapped in plastic.

Freedom Industries was ordered to stop storing chemicals in areas where they could flow into the containment dike that failed in Thursday’s leak, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, Aluise said, though officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, he said.

The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.

The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. The agent is mixed with ground-up coal to separate it from soil and rock particles, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. After the coal is cleansed, the leftover mixture of chemicals and mud is piped to slurry ponds, where much of it is stored until reused.

The chemical is water-soluble, meaning it cannot be removed with surface booms that are sometimes effective in capturing spilled oil. And it evaporates easily, which explains the smell that many people reported, said Capt. Larry Cseh, environmental health scientist with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The West Virginia National Guard has been running hourly tests on the chemical’s concentration since Thursday night. A safe level is 1 part per million. The level has dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million, said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of West Virginia.

At 0.1 parts per million, the licorice smell and green tint would disappear from the water, Hoyer said.

Even at its current concentrations, however, the chemical is unlikely to cause any serious harm, Ziemkiewicz said.

“You’d have to drink something like 1,700 gallons of water to even approach a lethal dose,” he said. If a person drank a glass or two of tainted water, “I would be astonished if that caused any serious problems.”

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.