Chemical Spill Leaves 300,000 West Virginia Residents Without Water

Thousands of West Virginia Residents are without water after a chemical spill leaked into the Elk river.

Chemical-Spill-West-VirginiaWest Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the federal government have declared a State of Emergency as the West Virginia National Guard begins drinking water distribution to some of the near 300,000 people in nine counties who remain without safe water after a chemical spill involving a foaming agent used in the coal cleaning process leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and over a containment area, spilling into the Elk River near the state capital of Charleston, West Virginia.

On Thursday, January 9, a licorice-like smell was noticed throughout Charleston prompting Gov. Tomblin is issue a water order to all customers of West Virginia American Water saying do not drink, bathe, cook, or wash clothes with water from the tap. Counties affected by the drinking water contamination include Boone, Cabell, Jackson, Clay, Logan, Lincoln, Roane and Putnam, the Associated Press reports.

The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), is used by Freedom Industries, which manufacturers chemical for various industries, including steel, mining and cement, to clean coal. According to the New York Times, (NYT) 48,000 gallons of the chemical was stored in a tank near the Elk River, about a mile above a water treatment plant. The chemical leaked from the storage tank, filled its overflow containment and flowed into the river.

Tom Aluise, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency was “confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped” from the 48,000 gallon tank, but they are also unsure as to how long the tank had been leaking. While the chemical is not “particularly lethal in its usage form”, restaurants, day-care centers, bars, and other businesses that need health permits in Kanawha and Putnam counties were notified to “cease operations immediately” following the Governors warning. Schools in at least five counties remain closed because of the chemical spill.

According to the Charleston Gazette, emergency officials know little about the chemical MCHM, however, one material-safety data sheet said “no specific information is available … regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans. However, exposure to any chemical should be kept to a minimum,” the MSDS said. “Skin and eye contact may result in irritation. May be harmful if inhaled or ingested.”

State and federal officials are not sure how long it will take to clean the spill, nor for how long residents will be left with unsafe drinking water.

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