The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

January 9, 2014

Tomblin declares emergency after chemical spill

CHARLESTON — At least 100,000 customers in nine West Virginia counties were told not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes using their tap water because of a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declaring a state of emergency Thursday for all those areas.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday. The amount that spilled wasn’t immediately known, but West Virginia American Water has a treatment plant nearby and it is the company’s customers who are affected.

“The water has been contaminated,” said Tomblin, who didn’t know how long the emergency declaration would last.

Officials, though, said they aren’t sure what hazard the spill poses to humans and that there were no immediate reports of people getting sick. It also was not immediately clear how much spilled into the river and in what concentration.

“I don’t know if the water is not safe,” said water company president Jeff McIntyre.

Tomblin said he’s asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist the state with supplies of bottled water. But people weren’t waiting.

Once word got out about the governor’s declaration, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls.

As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.

“It was chaos, that’s what it was,” cashier Danny Cardwell said.

The don’t-drink-the-water declaration involves customers in the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. Most of the counties surround the capital city of Charleston, where there was a chemical smell similar to licorice in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply on Thursday night.

West Virginia lawmakers who just started their session this week won’t conduct business on Friday because of the problem and State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed. Many students already missed some time this week because of the frigid weather.

McIntyre said the advisory was issued “because we don’t know. I don’t have anything to indicate the water is not safe. It’s an abundance of caution that we’re taking this step. We don’t do this lightly, tell our customers not to use the water.”

McIntyre said testing is being conducted to determine the concentrations of the chemical that have gone through the water system. But he said the chemical was in a much weaker concentration when it reached the water treatment plant through the river.

“Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can’t say how long this (advisory) will last at this time,” McIntyre said. When the advisory was first issued for five counties, that as many as 100,000 customers were affected. The company has 170,000 customers in 17 West Virginia counties, as well as in Ohio and Virginia.

Freedom Industries did not immediately respond for comment. The Elk River flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Kanawha eventually flows into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, about 55 miles to the northwest.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Martinsburg, said all committee meetings have been canceled and lawmakers will adjourn until at least Monday. Other government offices also will be closed.

Unger, who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources, said dozens of miles of pipe are affected by the spill.

“Flushing it out, that’s going to take some time,” Unger told The Associated Press. “You can imagine the infrastructure of the piping through the city and all of those counties.”

McIntyre and Tomblin said boiling water first to remove impurities won’t help as it sometimes does.

“Don’t make baby formula,” McIntyre said. “Don’t brush your teeth. Don’t shower. Toilet flushing only.”

McIntyre and state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management director Jimmy Gianato said the chemical isn’t lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.

Tomblin said the advisory also extends to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water.

Two fast-food restaurants near the Capitol, a few miles from the spill site, were closed Thursday night, but across the street, a pizza shop remained open.

And at the Little India restaurant in Charleston, owner Meena Anada said she had been drinking water all day, “but I’m not nervous. I’m not going to die.”

Little India bar manager Bill LaCourse said he’s endured boil water advisories in the past, “but when they tell you it doesn’t do any good to boil the water, what can you do?”

About 12 customers were in the restaurant when LaCourse got the word about the shutdown notice and everyone was asked to leave. The situation repeated itself at other restaurants, where workers said they were concerned about what to do about ice machines, hot water heaters and water itself once the emergency is lifted.

West Virginia Delegate Michael Manypenny, D-Taylor, who co-chairs the water resources committee with Unger, said he’s been pushing for stronger oversight of industries in order to protect the state’s water resources. He said the spill will add fuel to his argument.

“This leaves a lot of questions,” he said. “And I think we’re going to need an inquiry on why this happens and what we can do to prevent it.”

1
Text Only
West Virginia
  • Manchin urges mines to speak out for coal

    The Democratic senator leading the battle against the White House’s strategy to fight climate change urged the mining industry on Tuesday to speak out about coal’s role in providing affordable, reliable electricity to the country to help combat strict new emissions rules for coal-fired power plants.

    April 16, 2014

  • Many schools already meet new mandate for breakfast

    Many West Virginia public schools have changed the way they serve breakfast to students ahead of a requirement that goes into effect in September.

    April 14, 2014

  • W.Va. grower promotes unmodified feed corn

    Lyle Tabb is hoping that his non-genetically modified corn will take off with farmers who can charge top dollar for “all natural” eggs.
    Genetically modified or GMO corn has greatly simplified the process of getting rid of weeds, but has also substantially increased the amount of a chemical call glyphosate.

    April 13, 2014

  • Geologists link small quakes to fracking

    Geologists in Ohio have for the first time linked earthquakes in a geologic formation deep under the Appalachians to hydraulic fracturing, leading the state to issue new permit conditions Friday in certain areas that are among the nation’s strictest.
    A state investigation of five small tremors last month in the Youngstown area, in the Appalachian foothills, found the injection of sand and water that accompanies hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Utica shale may have increased pressure on a small, unknown fault, said State Oil & Gas Chief Rick Simmers. He called the link “probable.”

    April 12, 2014

  • Phares looks forward to retirement

    James Phares looked forward to the challenge and opportunity to help make a difference in a state education system under fire when he was hired in late 2012 as West Virginia’s schools superintendent.
    After 18 months, Phares will be stepping down on June 30 — which he said was set long ago as the day at age 61 that he’d walk with his wife into retirement.

    April 11, 2014

  • Teacher planning, abortion ban among W.Va. vetoes

    Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed about 200 bills and nixed eight this year, leaving teachers and abortion opponents unsatisfied.

    April 7, 2014

  • Spill company president ‘bears no fault’

    The president of Freedom Industries “bears no fault” for a West Virginia chemical spill that spurred a water-use ban for up to 10 days for 300,000 people, his lawyer says in a court filing.
    On Friday, Freedom President Gary Southern withdrew his application to get paid for work he already did during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. He also wanted Freedom and its insurance to cover his legal fees related to the Jan. 9 spill.

    April 5, 2014

  • Agencies to ask West Virginia residents about chemical spill

    Health agencies are making thousands of phone calls and going door-to-door to ask West Virginians how a January chemical spill affected them.
    The state Bureau for Public Health announced Thursday that volunteers will survey randomly selected households in nine counties about health concerns from the spill.

    April 5, 2014

  • Hearing scheduled on police shooting suit dispute

    The family of a Virginia man who was shot and killed by Martinsburg police officers after a scuffle is asking a judge to order the city to give them investigative and autopsy reports from the incident.
    The estate of 50-year-old Wayne Arnold Jones of Stephens City, Va., filed a $200 million federal lawsuit against the city after he was killed on March 13, 2013.

    April 4, 2014

  • Families remember mine disaster victims

    Four years after losing friends and relatives in a West Virginia mine disaster, 11 people preferred to watch a film together that they knew would reopen those wounds.
    The film, “Upper Big Branch - Never Again,” by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship theorized that his old company wasn’t at fault for the deadly explosion, despite four investigations that concluded otherwise.

    April 3, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads