CHARLESTON, W., Virginia (Reuters) - Tap water in Charleston, West Virginia, and nearby communities will remain unsafe in the coming days, an official said on Saturday as residents spent a third day unable to bathe, shower or drink from the faucet due to a chemical spill tainting the Elk River.
As much as 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) of industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, leaked into the river on Thursday, state officials said.
The spill came from a tank belonging to Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, authorities said.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday declared a state of emergency for nine counties, with the affected area including the state capital of Charleston, the state’s largest city. President Barack Obama has issued an emergency declaration.
“Our teams are out and we have employees that have worked this (water) system that are extremely knowledgeable. (They are) out collecting samples and looking at flushing activities at this time,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co, told reporters on Saturday.
“But we are talking days” before water quality meets federally mandated quality standards, said McIntyre, whose company runs the state’s largest water treatment plant.
The regional ban on using tap water will be lifted one area at a time as officials work to meet the 1 part per million requirement set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, McIntyre said.
Officials have said chemical levels in the water were declining, but the spill forced schools and businesses to close in Charleston and surrounding communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent 75 tractor trailers full of bottled water to distribute, with National Guard assistance, to the over 300,000 people unable to use their tap water.
“As of Saturday, FEMA has delivered approximately 1 million liters of water from its distribution centers in Cumberland and Frederick, Maryland, to the area for use by the state,” it said. “FEMA will continue to deliver supplies to the state for distribution, as needed.”
Secretary Karen Bowling of the state Department of Health and Human Resources said 73 people had gone to area emergency rooms and five have been admitted to hospitals for observation.
Their symptoms included nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin, officials said.
Water carrying the industrial chemical has an odor like licorice or anise. Though not highly lethal, the level that could be considered safe has not been quantified, McIntyre said.
The contamination has forced area restaurants to close.
“What we’re working on is a plan to be able to allow businesses to be able to present plans for potable water,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
“We’ll review those plans and after we verify, we’ll reopen businesses on a case-by-case basis. We have begun that process already,” Gupta said.
Residents endured another day without access to running water, and for some the wait was too long.
Russell Anderson, who lives down the street from the spill, said he spent his Saturday stocking up on bottled water supplies at a Rite Aid drugstore.
“It’s been a real pain,” he said. “I just took a shower yesterday. I’m fighting a cold right now and I just couldn’t go without, so I took my chances.”
Local officials helping out with distribution of bottled water said they have had a hard time keeping up with demand.
“Really the biggest challenge has been running out and having to wait 10 to 15 minutes before we can get some more,” said Kanawha County Sheriff Deputy Jed Walls.
Writing by Victoria Cavaliere, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis