Thousands of Residents Warned to Not Use Water
Chemical leaked into Elk affects W.Va. American Water customers
9 January 2014
By Rachel Molenda
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Residents in eight counties and part of a
ninth were told Thursday evening not to drink, cook with or wash
with water supplied by West Virginia American Water after a leak
earlier in the day at a chemical facility along the Elk River.
Any water supplied by West Virginia American Water in Kanawha,
Putnam, Boone, Jackson and Lincoln counties was to be used only
for flushing toilets and putting out fires, officials said just
before 6 p.m. A couple hours later, Roane, Clay and Logan counties
were added to the warning. The Culloden area of Cabell County was
also affected. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency
in all of those counties.
Customers of several public service districts, including Lincoln,
Queen Shoals, Reamer, Culloden and Hurricane, were also told not
to use their water.
The ban could affect more than 100,000 West Virginia American
Water customers, including restaurants, businesses and hospitals.
Residents swarmed grocery stores, convenience stores and anywhere
else with bottled water Thursday evening, and shelves were quickly
Hours after water company officials said their treatment facility
-- which is near the leak site on the Elk River -- could handle
the leak from Freedom Industries on Barlow Drive, Tomblin said:
"Nobody really knows how dangerous it could be. However, it is in
"It's just so important, according to the health department, as
well as West Virginia American: Please don't drink, don't wash
with, don't do anything with the water," the governor said
Thursday night at the state Capitol.
Water was being transported into the affected counties, and
emergency officials said they planned to set up distribution
Col. Mike Cadle at the state Air National Guard's 130th Airlift
Wing said 51 tractor-trailers loaded with water were headed to
West Virginia from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility
A C-130 cargo aircraft took off from Yeager Airport at 7:05 p.m.
for Martinsburg to pick up the water. Cadle said that if the
trucks arrived too late to fly the water in Thursday, the trucks
would continue driving through the night and arrive at the 130th
on Friday morning for distribution.
It was not clear Thursday night what time distribution centers
would be set up today, but Lt. Col. Todd Harrell of the state
National Guard said a center would be set up at the Charleston
Civic Center to serve customers from Kanawha and Jackson counties.
Another center would be set up at the Putnam County Courthouse in
Winfield, he said.
Distribution centers would also be set up at the 911 center in
Lincoln County, Queen Shoals in Clay County and the Sharples
Volunteer Fire Department in Logan County, Harrell said.
Distribution points for Boone, Roane and Cabell counties were yet
to be determined late Thursday.
A few places with water had already said they would let people
fill up containers today, including Bartlett-Chapman Funeral Home
in St. Albans, Chapman Funeral Home in Hurricane and the West
Hamlin Volunteer Fire Department.
Schools had been ordered closed today in Kanawha, Putnam, Boone,
Jackson, Clay and Lincoln counties as of 10 p.m. Thursday.
Tomblin said he expected the state of emergency to still be in
effect this morning. He said it would stay until the state
Department of Health and Human Resources, the Department of
Environmental Protection and the water company say the water is
He called the chemical -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, according
to a DEP spokesman -- a "sudsing agent" and said, "It could take
some time, they can't tell us how long it will take, to get the
system flushed clean because some of these pipes go out as far as
The chemical is used in the processing of coal.
Places that don't use water from West Virginia American Water are
not affected. That includes the cities of Spencer and St. Albans,
where Mayor Dick Calloway, whose city gets its water directly from
the Coal River, said his town's residents would not fall under the
"do not use" order.
Kanawha Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said the county's 911 center got
about a dozen calls about citizens getting into scuffles over
water at stores. County officials urged residents not to rush out
to try to buy water, and police were asked to step up patrols
around convenience stores.
Philip Toliver of Charleston came to the Rite-Aid on Charleston's
East End because the one on Bridge Road had already sold out of
bottled water, he said. He bought six cases.
"[I thought] 'I think I need to get some water,'" Toliver said
upon learning of the chemical leak. He said if the state of
emergency stretched on for more than a few days, he would consider
leaving town for a while.
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said at a
news conference that the company was "fairly confident" earlier in
the day that its plant could handle the treatment of the chemical.
"It's clear the chemical has infiltrated the water," McIntyre
said. "In an abundance of caution, we are taking these steps
When asked what might happen if a person consumed the chemical,
McIntyre didn't get specific, only saying "it's not particularly
lethal in its usage form" and the effects of the chemical would
depend on its concentration.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston
Health Department, said restaurants, bars, day-care centers and
other businesses with a health permit in Kanawha and Putnam
counties would be sent a message to "cease operations
Gupta said there are about 1,200 health department permits issued
in Kanawha County and about 300 in Putnam County, where the
Kanawha department has temporarily taken over health enforcement
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said the county
emergency operations center was open and emergency crews were
assessing their response.
"Earlier [Thursday], we were assured there was no harm to the
public," Carper said. "We'll do blame-assignment later. Now we
have to deal with it."
Carper said the do-not-use order would effectively shut down
restaurants, nursing homes and any other establishment that relies
"I have been promised by the governor himself that we'll have any
resources we need," he said. "I predict it's going to be a long
Mike Dorsey, director of emergency response and homeland security
for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said his
division learned of the incident around noon from Department of
Environmental Protection air-quality officials -- who had received
odor complaints about the facility as early as 7:30 a.m.
The DEP's air-quality officials discovered the spill -- which the
company had not self-reported to regulatory agencies -- and called
Dorsey's unit, which handles such matters for the DEP.
State investigators discovered the material was leaking from the
bottom of a storage tank, and had overwhelmed a concrete dike
meant to serve as "secondary containment" around the tank, Dorsey
"That was going over the hill into the river," Dorsey said.
"Apparently, it had been leaking for some time. We just don't know
The state Department of Homeland Security has contacted the
Federal Emergency Management Agency to try to have more bottled
water brought into the area, Tomblin said. Later Thursday, the
governor said he'd spoken with FEMA's director, Craig Fugate.
Freedom Industries produces "freeze conditioning agents, dust
control palliatives, flotation reagents [and] water treatment
polymers," among other chemicals, according to its website.
Freedom Industries officials, including the company's president,
Dennis Farrell, did not return repeated phone calls Thursday.
Earlier in the day, some emergency officials were saying they had
found little information about potential toxic effects of the
One material-safety data sheet, or MSDS, said, "no specific
information is available ... regarding the toxic effects of this
material for humans.
"However, exposure to any chemical should be kept to a minimum,"
the MSDS said. "Skin and eye contact may result in irritation. May
be harmful if inhaled or ingested."
Less than three hours before the state of emergency was declared,
an official statement from West Virginia American Water was issued
assuring the public and news media that the spill "does not
present a health risk to customers."
The water company announced an emergency news conference regarding
the spill at 5:09 p.m. and Tomblin officially announced the state
of emergency around 6 p.m.
"This is not a chemical that we deal with every day. It's not the
type of thing we would see in dealing with a water treatment
plant," McIntyre said. "We took some time to understand even what
we were dealing with at the time."
McIntyre said the company will have to do "extensive flushing" to
make sure the contaminant is out of its system. He couldn't say
how long the process will take.
State Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato advised those
customers with concerns of exposure or consumption of the chemical
can call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. If someone
is obviously sick, they should go to the hospital or call 911,
House of Delegates spokeswoman Stacey Ruckle said the House
wouldn't conduct any business today, and would reconvene at 1 p.m.
Staff members at Thomas Memorial and Saint Francis hospitals were
told not to use water except for flushing the toilets, spokeswoman
Paige Johnson said Thursday.
The hospitals have some bottled water on hand and they're getting
more, Johnson said.
She didn't know of any patients coming to the hospital complaining
of problems associated with drinking the contaminated water.
CAMC has canceled all procedures for today, officials said.
Meadowbrook Acres Nursing Center, a 60-bed nursing home in
Charleston, was prepared, said administrator Kim Toney.
"We keep a three-day emergency supply, so we should be fine,"
Toney said. "We're planning for more but we've got enough to last
until we can get more water in here."
At the Charleston Town Center Mall, marketing director Lisa
McCracken said Thursday evening, "We've closed our restaurants and
we closed our treateries. We've turned off all the public restroom
faucets, and we have issued an advisory mall-wide to the tenants,
telling them not to use the faucets in their establishments."
Crystal Del Giudice, a supervisor at the Starbucks coffee shop in
the mall, said employees ran out to buy hand sanitizer so they
could clean themselves up after they closed the store.
"It's like the apocalypse," she said, half-jokingly.
Several mall restaurants had signs posted, informing customers
that they were closed because of the water emergency.
At the Kroger in Kanawha City, shelves in the bottled-water aisle
were nearly bare. A Charleston police officer kept an eye on the
Kerstin Halstead of Campbells Creek was doing her regular shopping
when her husband called and told her to buy water. "People have
been grabbing it like crazy," she said as she loaded two cases of
bottled water into her SUV, "and some people were getting -- well,
they could have shared more."
The East End Rite-Aid ran out of water just after 6:30 p.m.,
according to a store employee. Customers were buying ice instead.
Ruby Piscopo, 28, of Charleston, and Christi Pritt, 29, of Belle,
were having an after-work drink when they heard about the chemical
leak. "We started getting texts and changed the TV to the news,"
Piscopo said. "I wasn't concerned until someone said it could go
on for days."
The two bought $30 worth of water between them. They had other
friends buying water throughout the city, with the intention of
splitting it up later.
Staff writers Ken Ward Jr., Caitlin Cook, Rusty Marks, Lori Kersey
and David Gutman contributed to this report.
Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.mole...@wvgazette.com or