By Doug Stanglin and Gary Strauss
Some 300,000 residents in nine West Virginia counties have been told avoid consuming or using public water supplies indefinitely after a chemical spill that emitted the odor of black licorice tainted the Elk River near Charleston, prompting businesses, schools and restaurants to close, a run on bottled water and state and federal officials to declare a state of emergency.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged water customers in the southwest counties of Kanawha, Putnam, Jackson, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Boone counties, as well as customers in the area of Culloden in Cabell County, to stop using water for everything but flushing toilets and fighting fires. There is no timeline for water restoration.
"Do not drink it. Do not cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it," Tomblin warned. "For safety, we would ask everyone -- this includes restaurants, hospitals, any institutions out there -- please do not use any tap water if you're a customer of West Virginia American Water."
Late Friday, West Virginia regulators ordered Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the leak, to cease operations until it recovers the chemical from the river and tests storage tanks and containment structures for reliability.
It's unclear how much of the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), was spilled and how much of a hazard it poses.
State health officials say MCHM could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation. But Jeff McIntyre, president of the West Virginia American Water Company, says so far, water tests to determine how much MCHM is in the water have been inconclusive. "We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe," McIntyre said.
"There is material present. We don't know how to quantify it,'' McIntyre said. A National Guard mobile lab will conduct sampling, he said.
The spill occurred Thursday when MCHM, used to wash coal of impurities, leaked from a Freedom Industries tank and overran a containment area, then poured into the Elk River and a nearby treatment plant.
Officials from Freedom, which makes chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, said they were working with local and federal officials and are following "all necessary steps to fix the issue."
Earlier Friday, the spill prompted President Obama to issue a state of emergency for the state. Retailers quickly sold out of bottled water. Truckloads of water were shipped from Maryland by the National Guard. Wal-Mart said it would also provide several truckloads of water.
The state Department of Environmental Protection's air-quality officials discovered the spill -- which the company had not reported, the Charleston Gazette reported. "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped," said department spokesman Tom Aluise. "A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained."
But Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said the company is still trying to determine how much MCHM had been released. The steel tank holding the chemical has a capacity of 35,000 gallons. "We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further leakage,'' Southern said at an evening news conference. "Our mission now is to move on to the next phase of remediation."
The leak caused a licorice-like smell to envelope the capital, forcing businesses schools in five counties and the state legislature to shut down.
Warnings of contamination to the water supply triggered a run on stores selling bottled water, including a Sam's Club that sold its 4,200 cases of water in an hour and a half, The Charleston Daily Mail reported. Store employees said they were unable to find any more water at stores in a 20-mile radius.
The sheriff's office in Kanawha county reported receiving about a dozen 911 calls after scuffles broke out over rapidly dwindling supplies. the Gazette reported. Police were asked to step up patrols around convenience stores.
The chemical's odor -- similar to cough syrup - was especially strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Marriott shut off all water to rooms, and then turned it back on so guests could flush toilets. Each guest was given two 16.9-ounce bottles of spring water upon returning to the hotel.
The head of the state Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing said 75 tractor-trailers loaded with water were sent to West Virginia from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Maryland, the Gazette reported. A C-130 cargo aircraft was sent to Martinsburg to pick up the water.
Some officials said the orders against drinking water from the tap were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.
The governor's warning about water use included restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water. Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said he wasn't aware of any hospitals closing and that area medical centers "seemed to have adequate water supply, at least for the short term."
The water ban also affected airlines serving Charleston's Yeager Airport in Charleston. Yeager spokesman Bryan Belcher said Friday that a USAirways flight from Charlotte, N.C., was cancelled overnight because its crew couldn't take showers.
Belcher says airport officials have notified airlines of the problem so they can make contingency plans.
Airport executive director Rick Atkinson says the airport is working with the airlines to find alternative housing for overnight flight crews.
At the Little India restaurant in Charleston, about 12 customers were asked to leave when bar manager Bill LaCourse learned about the shutdown notice.
Karlee Bolen, 16, of Charleston, said her family, including her parents, two sisters and brother, were considering the possibility of heading to her grandmother's home in Braxton County, where tap water was unaffected, an hour to the northeast.
"I kind of want to shower and brush my teeth," she said.
Contributing: Associated Press