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Chemical Spill Contaminates Tap Water in 9 W. Va. Counties, As Many As 300,000 Affected

Jan 10, 2014 03:11 PM EST

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in nine counties Thursday night following a chemical spill that led to the contamination of local water supplies.

As many as 300,000 people were told not to bath, drink, cook or wash clothes using their tap water because of the chemical spill, and there is no end in sight to how long tap water will remain contaminated.

The chemical, which is a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, spilled into the Elk River in Charleston. The foaming agent leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, a purveyor of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries. An unknown amount of the chemical overran a containment area and went into the river sometime 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 Associated Press reported.

The capital city of Charleston in the south central region of the state, along with Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties have been affected by the chemical spill and the don't-drink-the-water order.

The White House has approved the governor's request for a federal emergency declaration.

A statement issued by the governor's office said that teams are sampling water and working to get the issue resolved, although a time frame on when that may be was not given.

"Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes, and schools," Tomblin said in a statement. "I've been working with our National Guard and Office of Emergency Services in an effort to provide water and supplies through the county emergency services offices as quickly as possible."

The AP reported that officials with West Virginia American Water do not know how much of the chemical, known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was released into the water supply. The chemical is harmful if swallowed, can irritate the skin and eyes and could be harmful if inhaled, the AP reported, citing a document from Freedom Industries, which owns the tank chemical leaked from.

But water company president Jeff McIntyre seemed to dodge a question about the water's safety.

"I don't know if the water is not safe," McIntyre told the AP.

Charleston news station WSAZ obtained a statement released Friday by Freedom Industries, in which the company's president Gary Southern said his operation has made the safety of the affected residents a top priority.

"Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination," Southern said. "At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup."

In a statement released Friday Jewell Plumley, state veterinarian with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said that at this time "there are no known associated risks to livestock that may have been exposed to potentially contaminated water " from the chemical spill.

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