CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the third straight day, with more ahead, about 300,000 residents of West Virginia were unable to use their tap water because a chemical solvent leaked into the area’s water supply Thursday.
As authorities on Saturday worked to flush pipes that supply water to Charleston and nine counties in the state, officials said it will take several days to properly test the water to ensure it is safe to drink.
“I would think we’re talking days,’’ West Virginia American Water Company president Jeff McIntyre told reporters Saturday afternoon. The timeline will vary depending on location and customer demand on the state’s largest water utility.
An emergency order against using the tainted water has all but shut down Charleston, the state capital, where schools, restaurants and businesses were told to close late Thursday. Downtown Charleston remained dark and shuttered Saturday.
McIntyre said the order will not be lifted until tests confirm levels lower than one part per million of the chemical foaming agent 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. That is the level set by federal environmental and health standards for safe human consumption.
Thousands of residents lined up in a driving rain Saturday morning to collect bottled water or to fill containers with drinking water supplied by emergency management agencies. The West Virginia Army National Guard had delivered 1.4 million liters of water by Saturday, Guard commanders said, with another 1.6-million liters on the way.
State and federal agencies continued to investigate how the chemical, used in processing coal, spilled out of a containment tank Thursday morning into the Elk River about a mile upstream from the water company’s treatment facility.
Exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting and eye and skin irritation, authorities said. The emergency order issued by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin advises residents not to use tap water for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth or washing dishes or clothes. Not even boiling the water will make it safe, authorities said.
At least 73 people reported to emergency departments complaining of skin irritation, nausea or vomiting, but only a handful were admitted to hospitals, said Karen Bowling of the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
“We’ve had a lot of worried-well calls,’’ said Dr. Rahul Gupta of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. He said calls from people complaining of ailments linked to the water have dropped sharply since Friday.
A state regulatory agency ordered the chemical company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, to remove all remaining chemicals from its plant site. The company president, Gary Southern, apologized for the spill, calling it “unfortunate and unanticipated.”
Southern said the chemical was stored in a 35,000-gallon tank. He said the company could not determine how much had escaped from the tank and a surrounding containment area.
The company is "following all steps necessary to fix the issue," Southern said. The entire system must be flushed to eliminate the chemical, which one official described as "highly soluble."
Authorities estimated Friday that about 2,000 to 5,000 gallons leaked into the Elk River. But on Saturday, Mike Dorsey, chief of emergency response for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said subsequent calculations put the estimate at about 7,500 gallons.
Dorsey said state officials believe the chemical tank is no longer leaking. Waterways downstream, including the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, will not be affected because the solvent will have been diluted, he said.
Because testing and sampling requires time and sophisticated equipment, the water company and state environmental officials said it was too early Saturday to determine the level of water contamination.
“We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday. He did not change that assessment when questioned by reporters Saturday.
State authorities said a soaking rain that swept over Charleston and surrounding counties early Saturday morning could help dilute the chemical.
The state DEP said Freedom Industries had violated water and air standards by allowing the spill. The chemical emits a faint licorice-like odor, which wafted over Charleston on Friday night.
The environmental agency disputed Freedom Industries’ contention that the company took steps to stop the leak as soon as it was discovered Thursday morning. The agency said the company had done nothing to contain the spill when inspectors arrived around 11 a.m. Thursday in response to complaints from residents of a noxious odor.