Federal investigators will probe what allowed thousands of gallons of coal-processing chemicals to spill into a river in West Virginia, a leak that left about 300,000 people without the use of municipal drinking water.
The independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced its intent to investigate as officials in the state capital of Charleston said the leak was larger than first thought and that residents face the possibility of days more without use of their tap water.
“Our goal is to find out what happened to allow a leak of such magnitude to occur,” Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chemical board’s chairman, said in a statement. The probe will aim to “ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent a similar incident from occurring.”
Residents in and around the Charleston area were ordered not to drink, cook or bathe with public water after about 7,500 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a tank near the Elk River, upstream of a treatment plant for the West Virginia division of American Water Works Co.
The utility said four laboratories are testing its treated water, and it wouldn’t be able to clear the fluid for use until the chemical concentration fell to one part per million. So far the testing is “inadequate” to lift the order, and it could take days to fully clear the system once that water is clean, said Jeffrey McIntyre, president of the West Virginia water utility.
American Water Works, the biggest publicly traded water utility in the U.S., will offer rebates to customers, McIntyre said at a press conference in Charleston.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent 75 trucks with 18,500 liters of water in each one to Charleston, and those began arriving last night. Members of the National Guard were dividing up the shipments and sending them to distribution centers around the region, said Melissa Shade, a guard spokeswoman.
The leak of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol from a 35,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries Inc. was discovered on the morning of Jan. 9. The state increased the estimate of the leak to 7,500 gallons today, up from a 5,000 gallon estimate yesterday.
The chemicals flowed through a hole of about an inch, said Mike Dorsey, head of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection homeland security office. With many residents reporting a licorice odor, Dorsey said just smelling the chemical odor isn’t dangerous.
Closely held Freedom Industries, based in Charleston, has since drained the leaky tank, and state regulators ordered that it empty all of its 14 above-ground storage tanks and come up with a cleanup plan for the site.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office, along with other federal and state law-enforcement authorities, will investigate the cause of the leak and “take whatever action is appropriate.”
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern apologized for the spill, saying the company was working with state and federal officials. The company, formed in 1986, supplies chemicals to the steel, cement and coal-mining industries, including agents that deep freeze, treat water or control dust, according to its website.
“We have mitigated the risk in terms of further” contamination, Southern said at a news conference yesterday. “This incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated, and we are very, very sorry.”
West Virginia’s environment department told the company 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 an agency statement.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers said in a statement that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol can be harmful if swallowed or inhaled and can cause eye and skin irritation as well as nausea and vomiting. In the area, more than 70 people sought treatment for symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, and a few were admitted into the hospital, according to the state health department.
Thousands of miles of water mains in the capital and elsewhere are affected, and once no more contaminated water is coming out of the treatment plant, several more days may be required before normal service resumes, according to the water utility.
The potable water was shipped to the state from out-of-state federal facilities. Supermarket shelves in the area were being emptied of bottled water, and local residents were using social media to alert others of stores that had been restocked or the hotels and gyms offering free showers.
FEMA, which is coordinating relief efforts, said it would distribute more than 1 million liters of water. The federal government will pay for 75 percent of the cost for equipment and resources to fight the spill, after President Barack Obama issued a state of emergency for eight counties: Boone, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane.
At noon today, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin extended indefinitely the state of emergency that he initially issued on Jan. 9. His order now covers nine counties.