Chemical spill in W Virginia River poisons water for 300,000

Schools and businesses closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and legislators canceled business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston affected about 300,000 people and shut down much of the city and surrounding counties.
The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster. In requesting the federal disaster declaration, state officials said about 100,000 customers, or roughly 300,000 people total, were affected.
After the Thursday spill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered customers of West Virginia American Water not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.
The state National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties.
The cause and extent of the spill remain unclear. Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution.
The customers were without safe tap water on Thursday after a chemical used to clean coal leaked into the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., officials said.
West Virginia American Water warned residents in nine Charleston-area counties not to use the water. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, urging people not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes in the water.
The spill happened at a storage facility about a mile north of a water treatment plant on the Elk River, where a 48,000-gallon tank began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, a compound used to wash coal of impurities, the State Department of Environmental Protection said. The chemical spilled from a hole in the bottom of the tank and filled a container built to hold leaks before flowing into the river, Thomas J. Aluise, a spokesman for the agency, said.
Officials said they did not know how much of the chemical spilled into the river. Executives at Freedom Industries, the company that owns the storage tank, did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The warning affected customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Kanawha, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Putnam Counties.
Exposure to MCHM, which smells like licorice, can cause irritation of the skin, eyes and digestive tract, as well as breathing trouble. The chemical looked like “cooking oil floating on top of the water,” Mr. Aluise said.
Liza Cordeiro, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, said schools in at least five counties would be closed Friday.

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