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Tanaz Rahin and her mother Farri Rahin of Charleston, W.Va., drove across town to the Kroger in South Charleston, W.Va., to find water following a chemical spill on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply to eight counties on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
Chemical spill brings West Virginia capital to standstill
Safety » The agent isn’t deadly, but can cause skin irritation, rashes and vomiting.
First Published Jan 10 2014 04:18 pm • Last Updated Jan 11 2014 06:04 pm

Charleston, W.Va. • A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.

Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.

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Officials are working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre.

"We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe," McIntyre said Friday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low-enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.

Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people across nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none was in serious or critical condition, said State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling.

The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning about 10:30 a.m. that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president, Gary Southern. Southern said the company worked all day and through the night to remove the chemical from the site and take it elsewhere. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the chemical from the ground at the site.

"We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility," he said.

Southern said he didn’t think the chemical posed a public danger. He also said the company didn’t know how much leaked.

He also said more than once that it had been a "long day" for him and others at the company. After six minutes, Southern attempted to leave the news conference but was asked more questions.


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"Look guys. It has been an extremely long day," Southern said. "I have trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate if we could wrap this thing up."

The news conference ended a few minutes after that.

State officials started investigating Thursday when people complained about an odor coming from near the company’s river terminal. Inspectors found a leaking above-ground tank at the site just after 11 a.m. and realized that no one was trying to contain the spill, according to officials at the Department of Environmental Protection. The chemical was seeping through a containment dike, a backup intended to catch spills.

State environmental officials ordered the company late Friday to start removing chemicals from its 14 above-ground storage tanks within 24 hours. Authorities said the chemicals must be stored somewhere that has a working containment system. Within a day, the company must also submit a corrective action plan that includes steps to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater.

The spill brought West Virginia’s most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and even forcing the Legislature to cancel its business for the day. Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled.

"If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference Friday afternoon. The governor said there was no shortage of bottled water, and that officials were working to get water to those who need it. At least one charity was collecting donations of bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and other items for people unable to use tap water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland. Several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Co., Tomblin said.

However, it appeared that some level of panic already had set in to some degree. At the Kroger grocery store in the shadow of a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, people scrambled in the aisles to find bottled water, only to learn the store had been out since early Friday.

Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that store after trying at least a dozen others in the area and worried about how he’d make sure his cats had drinkable water. The water at his home had a blue tint and smelled like licorice, he said.

"I’m lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can’t get out. They need someone to help them," he said.

That’s what 59-year-old Dan Scott was doing: Taking care of his 81-year-old mother, Bonnie Wireman, and others in the area.

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