West Virginia residents, by the hundreds, are complaining of exposure symptoms after a crippling chemical spill compromised the public water supply for thousands of people and forced the closure of schools, businesses and restaurants in the state capital.
By Friday night, 737 people had called the West Virginia Poison Center to report concerns or symptoms related to the spill which includes nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin according to state health officials. The director of the state’s poison control center, Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, said the symptoms vary “from very mild too much more bothersome.” She tole Reuters at least 70 people have been seen by an emergency room doctor, though only a handful have been admitted to hospitals.
As the spill enters its third day Saturday, about 300,000 people in nine different counties are left without being able to drink, bathe or wash dishes and clothes with their tap water. The only allowed use of the water was for flushing toilets. There are no current estimates and when safe, quality water may become available again.
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped from the Freedom Industries plant and seeped into the Elk River. Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, apologized Friday for disrupting so many lives in southern West Virginia and said the company still does not know how much of the chemical spilled from its operation into the river. “We’d like to start by sincerely apologizing to the people in the affected counties of West Virginia,” Southern said. “Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruptions to everybody’s daily life this incident has caused.”
Governor Earl Tomblin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several companies were sending water and other supplies for residents. “If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” Tomblin said.
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water said officials are reportedly working with a Tennessee company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents. “We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday.
State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise said that the tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons but officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, Aluise said. Freedom Industries was ordered Friday night to remove chemicals from its remaining above ground tanks, Aluise added. The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, he continued.
Southern said the company has been working to remove the chemical from the site and take it elsewhere. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the chemical from the ground at the site. “We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility,” Southern said.
The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
Meanwhile, store shelves are obviously running dry on bottled water but there are reports of truckloads of bottled water coming in and distribution points are being set up.