By Brandi Underwood
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and an assortment of health and emergency officials addressed the media Friday afternoon in an effort to lessen public confusion and panic following Thursday’s chemical contamination of the Elk River.
The water contamination — which is being unofficially termed as the “West Virginia Water Crisis” — has affected more than 300,000 people across parts of nine southwestern West Virginia counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane.
Tomblin began the press conference by encouraging all individuals to follow West Virginia American Water “Do Not Use” order until the order is lifted.
“If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing or bathing,” Tomblin said. “At this time I do not know how long the order will last.”
Tomblin asked all West Virginians to check on their friends, families and neighbors — especially those with small children and seniors living in their households. He also urged that anyone experiencing nausea, vomiting, dizziness or irritation of the eyes and skin seek emergency care immediately.
About five people have been admitted to Charleston-area hospitals to be treated for symptoms that could have been caused by contaminated water consumption, but Department of Health and Humane Resources Secretary Karen Bowling stated there were no reports of people in serious or critical condition.
“Yesterday, my DEP took immediate action and warned the company storing the chemical to take immediate action and stop additional flows of the chemical into the Elk River,” Tomblin said. “This discharge of pollutants in unacceptable.”
The chemical — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM — leaked into the river from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries Inc., a chemical production plant located about a mile upstream from West Virginia American Water.
Crude MCHM is a frothing agent used to clean coal, however, Tomblin stressed that the coal industry had no hand in the water contamination crisis.
“This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident,” Tomblin said.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Water and Waste Management issued a cease operations order to Freedom Industries on Friday.
Tomblin emphasized that water and supplies are readily available and national assistance has been mobilized to the affected areas.
The Office of Emergency Management, state Department of Environmental Protection, state DHHR’s Bureau For Public Health and the National Guard are providing disaster assistance, performing health and wellness checks across the area, and collecting, testing and monitoring the water, Tomblin said.
President Obama approved Tomblin’s request to issue a federal emergency declaration to provide critical resources, and county emergency offices have been working around the clock since the crisis began Thursday,
Tomblin added. “We are focusing efforts on helping the most vulnerable — those in the hospitals and in the nursing homes,” Tomblin said.
“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic, because help is on the way. We are taking every measure to provide water to you. There is no shortage of bottled water.”
“I will direct my general counsel and my director of Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Gen. Hoyer to begin reviewing our emergency response of this incident,” Tomblin said.
“They reviewed both the response to the derecho and Hurricane Sandy, and we’ve learned a lot from those disasters. The past reviews have prepared us well for this situation.
“We can also learn a lot from this particular incident.”
Tomblin encourages all West Virginians in affected areas to contact their local emergency management office for information on active water distribution centers.