(Corrects to remove stock symbol, FPET.OB, to make clear
Freedom Petroleum Inc is unrelated to Freedom Industries.)
By Ann Moore
CHARLESTON, W. Va. Jan 10 Up to 300,000 West
Virginia residents were told not to drink tap water on Friday
after a chemical spill called its safety into question, and
health officials said water in the affected area should only be
used for flushing toilets and fighting fires.
"We don't know that the water's not safe, but I can't say it
is safe," Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American
Water Co, told a televised news conference. The company runs the
state's largest water treatment plant.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for
nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency
declaration on Friday. The spill forced the closure of schools
and businesses in the state capital.
"If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on
the way," Tomblin said in a statement. "We are taking every
measure to provide water to you." He said supplies were moving
into the area.
Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he
could not say when it would be declared safe for normal use.
The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, a
chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the
Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia's capital and largest
city, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American
Water carrying this chemical has an odor like licorice or
anise, McIntyre said. While the chemical is not highly lethal,
the level that could be considered safe has yet to be
quantified, he said.
A water company spokeswoman said the chemical could be
harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.
The spill originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston
company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel
and cement industries.
UP TO 5,000 GALLONS LEAKED
The governor said in an interview with CNN that there were
several thousand gallons of the chemical at the plant, and it is
estimated that at the maximum about 5,000 gallons leaked out.
"The old tank has been emptied and taken away and as of
right now the company is closed down," Tomblin said.
Tomblin said that when the Department of Environmental
Protection went to visit the company on Thursday morning, "they
had to convince them they needed to get in to take care of this
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said in a
statement that the company was still determining how much Crude
MCHM had been released.
"Our team has been working around the clock since the
discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination,"
Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to
centers around the affected area. Residents formed long lines at
stores and quickly depleted inventories of bottled water.
"It's just ridiculous," said Jaime Cook of Charleston, who
was buying one of the last jugs of water at a Walmart store.
"There's nowhere to buy water and everywhere seems to be sold
out. This isn't going to last two days."
Tina May, a Charleston resident, even considered heading out
of town for the weekend. "I'm not sure how long I can last
without a shower. This is unbearable," she said.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory on Friday waived size
and weight restrictions for trucks to expedite delivery of
water, equipment and supplies to West Virginia to help them
The Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health
Departments ordered the closure of all restaurants and schools
receiving water from the West Virginia American Water company.
Schools also were closed in many counties, including Boone,
Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and Putnam.
The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department
of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange odor
on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries site,
where they found a leaking storage unit, a spokeswoman for
Governor Tomblin said.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Peter Cooney, in
Washington, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina, Mary Wisniewski
in Chicago, and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Eric
Walsh, Stephen Powell, Toni Reinhold)