Health & Human Services

Chemical Spill in West Virginia Declared Federal Disaster

January 10, 2014
 

A federal disaster declaration has been issued for a West Virginia chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water and prompted officials to order residents in nine counties not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.

The declaration, made overnight, allows for direct federal assistance in dealing with the spill, Bill Hines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said early Friday. It remained unclear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration, or how long the advisory would last.

The federal move came shortly after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday when the spill from Freedom Industries hit a river and a nearby water treatment plant.

Customers of West Virginia American Water in the affected areas also got the order from Tomblin on Thursday night: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday.

Officials say the orders — which the water company also delivered to residents via automated telephone messages — were issued as a precaution, as they are still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.

"I don't know if the water is not safe," said water company president Jeff McIntyre. "Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can't say how long this (advisory) will last at this time."

McIntyre said the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Freedom Industries officials were unavailable for comment.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.

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