Chemical spill causes closures, rush for water in West Virginia

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<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

West Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency for five counties Thursday after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River, affecting tens of thousands of people and forcing schools and eateries to close.

[Updated, 7:25 p.m. PST Jan. 9: The governor has expanded the declaration to nine counties.]

Worried shoppers flooded into stores seeking bottled water after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said on Twitter: “EMERGENCY: Do NOT use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing.”


By evening, many stores appeared to be running out.

The chemical leak came from the Freedom Industries coal treatment facility outside Charleston, according to the Kanawha County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

[Update, 6:53 p.m. PST Jan. 9: The leak, which was first reported at 11:40 a.m., came from a 48,000-gallon storage tank, Tom Aluise, a spokesman for West Virginia’s department of environmental protection, told The Times. “All we know is that they discovered a hole in the tank, and material was leaking,” Aluise said. “How that hole got there, we don’t know.”

The Freedom Industries facility sits right on the river, about a mile upstream from a water treatment facility where the chemical contaminated the tap water, Aluise said.

It wasn’t clear how much of the chemical had leaked, Aluise said. After discovering it, officials drained the rest of the tank, cleaned up the material that had leaked at the facility, and placed absorbent booms along the river, he said.

“We don’t think it’s going to the river anymore,” Aluise said of the chemical. The biggest worry from the substance, he added, was if people drank it. “This material pretty much floats on the water, and it’s floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can’t actually get in there and remove it,” he said.]

In an earlier news release, the agency said, “The leaked product is 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, which is used in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation. The product initially leaked into a containment area, the product then leaked from the containment area into the river.”


The Elk River carried the chemical and contaminated the Kanawha Valley water supply, according to West Virginia American Water Co.

The water provider issued a “do not use” order to customers in eight counties [Updated, 6:53 p.m. PST Jan. 9: and a town in a ninth county] and said “it is not safe to use the water for any purpose.” The company’s president told the Associated Press that up to 100,000 customers could be affected.

The chemical, Charleston residents reported, smelled like licorice.

[Updated, 7:25 p.m. PST Jan.9: “Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes, and schools,” Gov. Tomblin said in a statement. “I’ve been working with our National Guard and Office of Emergency Services in an effort to provide water and supplies through the county emergency services offices as quickly as possible.”]

Even before the governor’s declaration, some West Virginians had guessed something was wrong.

Ellen’s Homemade in downtown charleston just closed as a precaution b/c of leak. Employees said h2o tastes like licorice.— Rachel Molenda (@rachelmolenda) January 9, 2014

Okay does anyone else think it smells like black licorice downtown?— Wendy (@triptinsley) January 9, 2014

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department ordered local restaurants, bars and schools to close for fear of contaminated water, according to local media reports.


County emergency officials urged calm as the warnings set off a rush for water at grocery stores, which were running out of supplies by Thursday evening.

Rite Aid on Washington St. West in&nbsp;#Charleston&nbsp;out of water#eyewitnessWV&nbsp;after chemical— Elizabeth Noreika (@enoreikaWCHS)&nbsp;January 9, 2014

A Target employee says the Trace Fork location is out of water. People are still standing in lines in hopes more bottles are in the back.— Taisha L. Walker (@TaishaWCHS) January 10, 2014

Well in all this craziness out southridge, we get the last two cases of water at Home Depot ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿— salena rogers (@salnicole) January 10, 2014

Chemical spill has contaminated the water in our region. The Dollar General near my house is already out of water.— Michael Ervin (@Michael4tg) January 9, 2014

It wasn’t clear how much of the chemical had leaked from Freedom Industries’ facility and how dangerous it was to people.


On its website, the company, a chemical supplier, said that its Charleston facility had 4 million gallons of storage capacity and “can process large volumes of chemical rapidly, and cost effectively.”

According to a material safety sheet from a different company, TCI Chemicals, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a colorless liquid that “may be harmful if inhaled or ingested.”

The Charleston Gazette reported that officials weren’t sure when the water might be safe to use again.