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Chemical spill shuts down much of West Virginia capital

By John Raby

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 10 2014 12:38 p.m. MST

Residents of South Charleston, W.Va., wait in line at Kroger to buy water following a chemical spill on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply of eight counties on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

Tyler Evert, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day's business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the extent of the danger remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. In requesting the federal declaration, which makes federal resources available to the state, state officials said about 300,000 people were affected.

Federal authorities are also launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill and what caused it, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday.

Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customers of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Officials from Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, hadn't commented since the spill, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said it would issue a statement later Friday.

Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear exactly how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped," he said. "A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained."

Agency officials do not know how long the chemical had been leaking, Aluise said in a telephone interview. There was a breach in a concrete wall that served as a containment area to prevent spills from leaving the storage site, he said.

"Our understanding is it's not an especially toxic material. It's not dangerous necessarily to be around," he said.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed — and could be so if inhaled — and causes eye and skin irritation. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddened skin, itching and rashes, according to a news release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Freedom Industries will be responsible for cleanup at the site, Aluise said.

"I don't know if the water is not safe," water company president Jeff McIntyre said. "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."

McIntyre said the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

The emergency declaration involves customers in all or parts of the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed.

The smell from the spill — similar to licorice or cough syrup — was especially strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Marriott shut off all water to rooms, and then turned it back on so guests could flush toilets. Each guest was given two 16.9-ounce bottles of spring water upon returning to the hotel.

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