The federal government began moving in water to help hundreds of thousands of people struggling on Friday to cope with the effect of a chemical spill that has left water in nine counties around Charleston, W.Va., off limits for drinking, bathing and cleaning.
Even as aid was being rushed to the area, the U.S. Attorney's office announced it would investigate the spill of a chemical used to prepare coal flow into the Elk River.
President Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for the state on Friday and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency teams began transporting water to the region where as many as 300,000 people were warned not to use municipal water.
Several local centers have already been set up to distribute safe water brought in with the help of the National Guard. “Water supplies have been relocated and have begun to be distributed to affected areas,” West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement.
But he warned that precautions remained in effect. “Continue to refrain from using the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing and washing. Do not boil this water or use it to supply oxygen machines,” Tomblin said.
“Our efforts will continue until we have a resolution,” the governor said on Friday. “Our main focus continues to center around our hospitals, nursing homes and those most vulnerable.”
Even as water was being sent to the area – including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties – officials continued their investigation into how the water became contaminated and how soon the use restrictions can be lifted.
“Our emergency response team has worked to develop a testing protocol and a sampling plan on the chemical at issue,” the governor said. “Initial samples have been taken, and additional sampling and testing will continue throughout the situation.”
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office will look into the spill.
The “release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy, and upended people’s daily lives," he stated.
"My office and other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release. We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”
The incident began Thursday when a spill from a storage tank at the Freedom Industries Inc. facility in Charleston leaked a chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, into the Elk River.
In a statement from Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, the company said it was working with all authorities to deal with the issue.
"Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup," Southern stated.
The tank holds more than 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. Early estimates are that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped.
The chemical can be harmful if swallowed. No injuries have been reported.
After the initial spill, the contaminant affected a West Virginia American Water Co. facility on the Elk River, which processes water earmarked for human use in the area.
As a precaution, the water company warned against any use other than for flushing toilets.
“I don't know if the water is not safe,” water company president Jeff McIntyre told reporters at a news conference. “Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can't say how long this [advisory] will last at this time.”
The spill has forced schools to close in the area and stores quickly ran out of bottled water and other drinkable products--and frustrated residents.