President Barack Obama declared an emergency in West Virginia today after a chemical spill tainted drinking water, forcing officials to issue a ban on using the supplies as state and federal agencies began investigations.
More than 200,000 people in Charleston and eight surrounding counties were told not to drink or use public water after a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a tank and into the Elk River, upriver of a treatment plant for West Virginia American Water Co.
“I can’t tell you that the water is unsafe, but I can’t tell you it’s safe, either,” Jeffrey McIntyre, the water company’s president, said today in a news conference. He said the utility has no time frame for ending the ban on drinking the water, the biggest “do not use” order it has ever issued.
The chemical that leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries Inc. was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used in coal processing, according to a statement from the company today. The company said it drained a 35,000 gallon tank that leaked and is vacuuming up any more of the chemical on its land.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office along with other law enforcement authorities will investigate the cause of the leak and “take whatever action is appropriate.”
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,” Goodwin said today in a statement.
Freedom Industries said the leak was discovered at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, and reported to state officials. The company doesn’t know how much of the chemical leaked, President Gary Southern said in a statement.
“Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak and prevent further contamination,” Southern said.
West Virginia’s environment department tonight ordered Freedom Industries to begin removing within 24 hours the contents of 11 above-ground storage tanks at the company’s facility in Charleston. The contents of three other tanks, including the one that leaked, had already been taken away, the agency said in a statement.
The company was also told to submit a proposal for cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater, along with a plan for the disposal of the chemicals in the tanks, according to the statement. The agency earlier today ordered Freedom Industries to halt operations at the site and verify that all its tanks are sound before it can reopen.
Thousands of miles of water mains are affected and several more days may be required before normal service resumes, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said in a statement, citing estimates from West Virginia American Water.
Trucks carrying clean water have moved in to the area, and distribution centers were set up to hand out bottled water and allow residents to fill jugs. The water was shipped to the state from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Maryland. Supermarket shelves were emptied of bottled water, the Charleston Gazette reported.
Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller said he will expect a follow-up report on the cause of the spill and contamination.
“Once all of the impacted counties and residents are able to return to a semblance of normalcy, I expect a full accounting of what happened -- and what can be done -- to make sure this type of disaster never happens again,” Rockefeller said in an e-mailed statement.
FEMA, which is coordinating relief efforts, was ordered by the president to respond to the spill and avert the threat of a catastrophe in Boone, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties, according to a White House statement.
The federal government will pay for 75 percent of the cost for equipment and resources to fight the spill, the administration said.