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Day 3 of West Virginia chemical spill and tap water is still a danger

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the third straight day, more than 300,000 residents of West Virginia were unable to use their tap water because of a state of emergency declared after a chemical solvent leaked into the area’s water supply late Thursday.

As authorities on Saturday worked to flush pipes that supply water to Charleston and nine counties in the state, officials said they could still not estimate when the water would be safe to drink. 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.

State and federal agencies continued to investigate how a chemical foaming agent, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, spilled out of a containment tank Thursday morning into the Elk River. The chemical is used in processing coal.

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, unanticipated."

Southern said the chemical was stored in a 35,000-gallon tank, but added that he could not determine how much had spilled into the river. The company is "following all steps necessary to fix the issue," he said.

Authorities estimated that about 2,000 to 5,000 gallons leaked into the river upstream from a water treatment plant operated by West Virginia American Water Co.

"We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe," said Jeff McIntyre, the water company president.

McIntyre said officials were working with the Tennessee company that makes the chemical to try to determine what levels can remain in drinking water without harming those who use it.

Exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting and eye and skin irritation, authorities said. An emergency order issued by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin advises residents not to use the water for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth or washing dishes or clothes. Not even boiling the water will make it safe, authorities said.

There were no immediate reports of widespread ill effects attributed to the chemical, according to health officials.

The state Department of Environmental Protection cited Freedom Industries for the odor caused by the leak and said the company 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 taken no steps to contain the spill when inspectors arrived around 11 a.m. Thursday in response to complaints from residents of a noxious odor.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said federal authorities had opened an investigation into the cause of the spill, which affected residents of Charleston, in Kanawha County, and the counties of Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane.

"We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is apppropriate based on the evidence we uncover," Goodwin said.

As a dense fog rose over the Kanawha River in Charleston, traffic jams formed as residents waited in line for water distributed by the West Virginia National Guard. Many complained about a third day without a shower and put the blame squarely on Freedom Industries.

"It’s killing me, not being able to shower," Sammy Robinson said as he waited for bottled water at the Malden Volunteer Fire Department just outside Charleston. "People are really upset with that chemical company. They better fix this fast."

Chuck Fulks, 59, a construction company employee, waited in his pickup truck to fill large plastic containers with water from a tank brought by the Guard to a parking lot at an automobile stamping plant in western Charleston.

"They didn’t maintain their product like they should have, and it’s affected a lot of peoples’ lives," Fulks said. "It looks like they didn’t follow regulations."

Jason Martin, 30, said he was working out at a gym Thursday afternoon when he heard about the emergency water order. He has not been able to properly wash up since, he said.

"I can’t believe they let so much of that chemical to get into the water," Martin said. "It’s not what you'd expect from a company like that."

Several lawsuits were filed Friday against Freedom Industries, most by businesses forced to shut down under the emergency order, city officials said. The company received at least one anonymous telephone threat, according to the county sheriff.

The emergency has shut down Charleston, the state capital, where schools, restaurants and businesses were told to close late Thursday. Downtown Charleston remained dark and shuttered Saturday as rain fell amid fog and dark clouds.

State officials said Saturday that the rain could help dilute the chemical. The entire water system must be flushed to eliminate the chemical, and health authorities said Saturday they would continue testing the water.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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