January 10

Chemical spill brings West Virginia capital to standstill

By Jonathan Mattise And Brendan Farrington
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

West Virginia state troopers fill water jugs at the Kmart in Elkview, W.Va., on Friday. Emergency crews are setting up water depots at many locations around the state following a chemical spill Thursday on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply to nine counties.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

A Freedom Industries worker places a boom in the Elk River on Thursday at the site of a chemical leak in Charleston that has fouled the drinking water in five West Virginia counties.

The Associated Press

"If you are low on bottled water, don't panic because help is on the way," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference Friday afternoon. The governor said there was no shortage of bottled water, and that officials were working to get water to those who need it. At least one charity was collecting donations of bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and other items for people unable to use tap water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland. Several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Co., Tomblin said.

However, it appeared that some level of panic already had set in to some degree. At the Kroger grocery store in the shadow of a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, people scrambled in the aisles to find bottled water, only to learn the store had been out since early Friday.

Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that store after trying at least a dozen others in the area and worried about how he'd make sure his cats had drinkable water. The water at his home had a blue tint and smelled like licorice, he said.

"I'm lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can't get out. They need someone to help them," he said.

That's what 59-year-old Dan Scott was doing: Taking care of his 81-year-old mother, Bonnie Wireman, and others in the area.

"She takes everything to heart. She forgot a few times and stuck her hand in the kitchen sink. When she realized what she did, she took out alcohol and washed her hands. Scrubbed them. She was really scared," he said.

Inside Kroger, there were signs that the chemical spills had affected business. Anything that used water — from the deli counter to the produce section — was either closed or had a limited supply.

Outside the restrooms, a handmade sign told the story: Because of a chemical spill in the Elk River, the store was advising people not to use the water fountain. The bathroom sinks were wrapped in plastic.

Freedom Industries was ordered to stop storing chemicals in areas where they could flow into the containment dike that failed in Thursday's leak, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, Aluise said, though officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, he said.

The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.

The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. The agent is mixed with ground-up coal to separate it from soil and rock particles, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. After the coal is cleansed, the leftover mixtures of chemicals and mud are piped to slurry ponds, where much of the chemical mixture is stored until re-used.

The chemical is water-soluble, meaning it cannot be removed with surface booms that are sometimes effective in capturing spilled oil.

The chemical evaporates easily, which explains the smell that many people reported, said Capt. Larry Cseh, environmental health scientist with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The West Virginia National Guard has been running hourly tests on the chemical's concentration since Thursday night. A safe level is 1 part per million. The level has dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million, said Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, Adjutant General of West Virginia.

At 0.1 parts per million, the licorice smell and blue-green tint would disappear from the water, Hoyer said.

Even at its current concentrations, however, the chemical is unlikely to cause any serious harm, Ziemkiewicz said.

"You'd have to drink something like 1,700 gallons of water to even approach a lethal dose," he said. If a person drank a glass or two of tainted water, "I would be astonished if that caused any serious problems."

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at OnlineSentinel.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)