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Friday, January 10, 2014

W.Va. Chemical Spill Leaves 300,000 Without Clean Water

Jim Cole of Exeter, N.H., got the last few bottles of water at the Kroger in South Charleston W.Va. following a chemical spill on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply to eight counties of Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (Tyler Evert/AP)

Jim Cole of Exeter, N.H., got the last few bottles of water at the Kroger in South Charleston W.Va. following a chemical spill on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply to eight counties of Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (Tyler Evert/AP)

Federal and state authorities have declared a state of emergency after a chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. Authorities have told people in nine state counties not to drink, cook, bathe or wash clothes with the contaminated water.

The warning came after the West Virginia American Water company notified officials that the contamination had overwhelmed treatment plants.

Reuters is reporting that the spill came from a tank owned by a Charleston based company, Freedom Industries, and it happened near the intake of the Kanawaha Valley water treatment plan.

West Virginia Public Radio reporter Ashton Marra speaks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about the situation.

Crews clean up a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, which official now say has effected the water supply of nine counties in the state. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Crews clean up a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, which official now say has effected the water supply of nine counties in the state. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, we'll go to Bell County, Kentucky, to see what hopes residents there have after being named one of President Obama's new promise zones.

YOUNG: Meanwhile, across the border in West Virginia, federal authorities will investigate that chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston that's affected up to 300,000 people in nine counties. The chemical is used to clean coal. Residents first noticed something wrong and contacted officials, who say symptoms from ingesting it could run from severe burning in the mouth to nonstop vomiting.

Officials are warning not to drink, bathe in or wash clothes with tap water. Here's Kent Carper, Kanawha County Commission president, speaking at a news conference this morning.

KENT CARPER: The situation is simply this: follow not the advice but the directive of the water company. Do not use the water until further notice.

YOUNG: Ashton Marra is state house reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Ashton, you were at that press conference earlier today. What else did officials say?

ASHTON MARRA: So basically what officials are saying, Robin, is that they don't know much, which is shocking, basically, at this point. They don't know how much of the chemical got into the drinking water supply. They don't know - they don't have a timeline for when water will be returned to the people of this area. All they know is that it's not safe to drink, it's not safe to use, not safe to consume.

YOUNG: Well, and they do know it came from Freedom Industries, the company. We didn't hear from them for a long time but have now. What are they saying?

MARRA: Freedom Industries is obviously taking the safe route and not saying much. They are saying that their first priority right now is the safety - it's for the safety of the Kanawha County residents and the surrounding areas and that they are - obviously they are working with local and federal regulatory and safety entities.

Other than that, they say that they are still working to determine the amount of this chemical that leaked into the water supply, and they are setting up an incident command center onsite.

YOUNG: Well, we heard about the symptoms. They sound pretty severe: eye and skin irritation, blistering. We mentioned nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing. But is it lethal?

MARRA: The president of West Virginia American Water, Jeff McIntyre, is saying that this - he does not believe that there is a high lethality to do with these chemicals. But he's basing that statement off of statistics he's gotten based on the lethal dosage for animals, for rats and for bunnies. These are the only types of studies that have been done in the past.

There's not a whole lot known about this chemical and what it will do when ingested into the human system, but poison control here in West Virginia has gotten upwards of 500 calls of reported systems. Accounts in area hospitals, though, of those being treated are very low at this point, in the single digits to low double digits.

YOUNG: Well, you have to wonder what people are being treated with. You've got hospitals, restaurants, nursing homes in the area, none of which can use their tap water.

MARRA: None of them can use their tap water, that's correct, but I think that at this point, those are the number one priorities for the emergency management agencies. Shipments of water came in overnight, and we were told that those shipments were first going to hospitals and to nursing homes, initially to schools, but now all the county school systems have been closed.

So those top-priority places have been fully supplied with water from outside of West Virginia or from other areas of West Virginia in order to deal with those critical populations.

YOUNG: And it's quite something. We know the National Guard is mobilizing. They're going to bring in more bottled water. We're reading accounts, for instance, in the city of Huntington, which I understand is about 50 miles away, hotels there are offering showers for people who can't take showers.

When this news started to really get out after this licorice-like smell that we understand that was permeating the area, what was the scene like at stores?

MARRA: I think you would expect the scene last night to be the same as it would be in the case of any state of emergency or any natural disaster: long lines; the shelves were cleared within hours of any supplies of bottled water, cases of water bottles, ice even. It was all gone within an hour or two from all of these locations. That's when emergency management had to step in and say remain calm, we're doing what we can to get you a supply of fresh water.

YOUNG: And we know your state attorney general there in West Virginia is warning about price gouging, don't even try it he says. But meanwhile, as you said, I just want to underscore, no sense of how long this will go on.

MARRA: No sense, and that's what should be most concerning and most shocking here. This storage facility is just a mile upstream from the water intake for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, and there was no planning, no contingency plan should something like this occur.

YOUNG: Ashton Marra, state house reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Again, there was a leak yesterday of a chemical into the Elk River. It's gotten into the water in just about everything of up to 300,000 people, and they are told not to drink it, shower in it, bathe in it, use it in any way. Ashton Marra, thanks so much.

MARRA: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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