Over a quarter million people in West Virginia found themselves without access to clean water in their own homes today because of a chemical spill that contaminated local water sources. The spill was discovered in the Elk River after people noticed a strange smell in the air around the river and an environmental agency investigated, discovering a leak in a chemical storage tank belonging to Freedom Industries. The state issued a warning this morning, telling residents of nine counties to avoid tap water except to flush toilets and fight fires; as a result, schools and businesses have been closed and hospitals have been forced to turn away everyone but emergency patients.
A toxicologist with Freedom Industries acknowledged that there is “some health risk” for those who may come in contact with the chemical called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, which is used to wash coal. According to a government resource, those risks include skin and eye irritation, headaches and respiratory issues. It can also be fatal if swallowed, though a spokesperson for the company reassured victims of the spill that the chemical has been diluted by the river water.
Predictably, a run on water in local stores means that water supplies are running low in the area, so a dozen water tankers were brought in to help ease the strain and West Virginia American Water, a local water company, brought in four truckloads of bottled water. The governor has declared the area a state of emergency and President Obama signed an emergency declaration that authorizes FEMA to begin relief efforts.
Right now the US Army, Freedom Industries and the manufacturer DuPont are working together to determine how much of the chemical in the 48,000-gallon storage tank has made its way into the river and subsequently into the water treatment facility downstream. At this point, officials aren’t sure what the cleanup will require or when people will have access to clean drinking water again.