Bottled water for West Virginia residents plagued by chemical in water supply

Posted at 11:04 AM, Jan 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-11 13:04:55-05
By Greg Botelho and Tom Watkins


(CNN) — Sixteen tractor-trailers carrying bottled water began to arrive Saturday in West Virginia, where some 300,000 residents of nine counties have been told not to drink their tap water.

The Department of Homeland Security shipped the potable water to distribution centers in and around Charleston, and residents began stocking up Saturday at a number of locations.

But they offered no timeline for when calmer, clean waters would prevail.

“We’re just not sure exactly how long it’s going to take before it’s acceptable to lift the do-not-drink ban,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told CNN on Friday night. He described the situation in the counties where the ban is in place as “pretty bad,” for residents who were told their water was good for nothing but flushing toilets; and for schools, restaurants, hotels and other businesses forced to close.

The amount of chemical that has caused the big stink dropped Friday, but not enough for authorities to lift their advisory not to drink, cook or bathe with it.

Some residents have directed their anger at the coal-industry company from whose storage tank the chemical leaked.

“It’s caused us more problems than you could ever imagine,” said Danny Jones, the mayor of Charleston, the state’s capital and most populated city. “It’s a prison from which we would like to be released.”

Utility official on water: ‘I can’t say it is safe’

The crisis began Thursday, when residents of Kanawha County reported a foul odor — similar to licorice — in the air.

The Kanawha County Fire Department and the state Department of Environmental Protection that day traced that smell to a leak from a 35,000-gallon storage tank along the Elk River.

The chemical had overflowed a containment area around the tank run by Freedom Industries, then migrated over land and through the soil into the river. The leak happened about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water Co. plant.

After concluding late Thursday afternoon that the tap water was contaminated, a stop-use warning went out to customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

West Virginia American Water’s President Jeff McIntyre said Friday he didn’t believe the substance — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — was still flowing. But that doesn’t mean the situation will be resolved soon.

“It is not intended to be in the water distribution system,” McIntyre said. “Once it’s in there, there’s no more treatment for it.”

The ordeal is having a big impact.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper told CNN on Saturday that more than 100,000 customers were affected, bringing the number of people affected to about 300,000.

Businesses have closed; hospitals have taken emergency measures to conserve water. And residents have been scrambling, as evidenced by empty shelves and worries at home.

“It’s all very hectic,” said Patricia Pearl of Charleston. “You don’t even want to go to the grocery store. I think everyone is in a panic.”

Emergency rooms busy, businesses closed

The director of the West Virginia Poison Center said it had received more than 800 calls from area residents complaining of possible symptoms related to the leak. They included nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, diarrhea, red skin, itching, rash and sore throat, Dr. Elizabeth Scharman told CNN.

Of 91 people evaluated in the emergency room, four have been admitted, she said.

Another 54 calls were related to possible animal exposure, she said. And more than 200 were simply seeking information.

The ripple effects went beyond health concerns and have affected dozens of businesses. In addition to shuttering her shop Flowers & More on Friday — usually her busiest day — Pearl noted other ripple effects, like how her 60-year-old husband’s physical therapy session tied to a recent knee surgery was canceled.

“The problem is that no one seems to know when we’ll have the water restored,” she said.

First responders and hospitals saw a rush of activity after the alert went out. Carper said more than 1,000 calls were placed in four or five hours to the 911 center, 24 of them for emergency medical services — five of which led to people being taken to hospitals.

Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan urged people to get medical attention “if they are feeling something … isn’t right.”

Many — perhaps too many — did just that.

“Our emergency rooms have been very busy with individuals unnecessarily concerned and presenting no symptoms,” said the Charleston Area Medical Center.

The restrictions affected the hospital in other ways, too. It put into place linen conservation and alternative cleaning methods and turned away all but emergency patients.

A lawsuit was filed Friday by a man whose scheduled kidney transplant was canceled because of the water issue, attorney Jesse Forbes said.

The patient, Daniel Stewart, sued the water utility and Freedom Industries, saying the ordeal was “forcing (him) to undergo dialysis, pain and suffering and continued illness due to his renal failure and other medical damages.”

West Virginia American Water “failed to maintain an appropriate emergency response plan,” Stewart said, while Freedom “failed to properly maintain and store its chemicals.”

In response, the utility said in a statement, “West Virginia American Water is not focused on litigation at this time. Our focus is on our customers and providing safe adequate water supplies.”

Leaked chemical used to wash coal

Freedom Industries also is feeling the heat.

President Gary Southern tried several times Friday evening to walk away from a news conference, saying “it has been an extremely long day,” only to be called back by insistent reporters — including one who noted how long a day it has been for West Virginians without drinkable water or a full explanation as to why.

“This incident is extremely unfortunate and unanticipated,” Southern said. “This has been a very, very taxing process.”

Southern said two Freedom employees noticed material leaking from a storage tank into a dyke around 10:30 a.m. Thursday. They contacted authorities and began the cleanup process — including hauling away the chemical still in the tank and vacuuming up some from the nearby ground, he said.

“We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility,” said the head of Freedom, which supplies products for the coal-mining industry.

Southern said he couldn’t say how much of the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — which is used to wash coal before it goes to market — leaked, only that it was less than 35,000 gallons.

Tomblin said no more than 5,000 gallons of the chemical seeped out.

The Freedom Industries president downplayed the chemical’s health effects, saying it has “very, very low toxicity” and poses no danger to the public.

West Virginia American Water’s McIntyre had a different take, as evidenced by the company’s unprecedented stop-use warning: “We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency — which has no official role in the response — has taken no enforcement actions against Freedom Industries during the past five years, agency spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said.

But hours after the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a cease-operations order for the company, it ordered Freedom to empty its 11 other storage tanks.

‘I do not know how long this will last’

Having declared a state of emergency for the affected area, Tomblin urged West Virginians to look out for one another — especially small children and the elderly.

To that point, he announced a “call to action drive” through Friday evening at the State Capitol to collect items such as bottled water, sanitizer, liquid baby formula, paper and plastic plates and utensils for those in need. This is in addition to water stations set up in malls, churches, high schools, recreation centers and fire departments.

The federal government has gotten involved, as well, with President Barack Obama signing an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

FEMA said Friday that it was sending 75 trucks — each carrying about 4,900 gallons of water — to the area.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said federal authorities are looking into what happened, telling CNN Friday that “even a negligent release of this kind could be a criminal violation.”

“It’s really too early to tell whether criminal charges could be brought,” he said. “We’re going to want to figure out just exactly what occurred and when … But right now, obviously, what we’re trying to do is get people’s water back on.”

Meanwhile, West Virginia American Water is working with DuPont and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the contamination level. Jordan said the system would be flushed and may be returned to service in zones, but she would not speculate when that might occur.

CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Mike Ahlers, Paul Caron, Ashley Fantz, Ed Payne, Marlena Baldacci, Kevin Conlon, Susan Candiotti and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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