Spill Leaves 300,000 West Virginians Without Clean Tap Water

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 10 2014 11:21 AM

West Virginia Chemical Spill Smells Like Licorice, Leaves Thousands Without Water

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Nearly 300,000 West Virginians were left without clean tap water following a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Nearly 300,000 West Virginians – or about 16 percent of the state – are without clean tap water today following a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a State of Emergency yesterday and warned residents against using the contaminated water.

“West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged NOT to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing,” Governor Tomblin said in a statement. “Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.”

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Today, the White House joined the state in declaring emergency and will send federal disaster assistance. The state’s national guard plans to distribute bottled water to the affected areas. The spill has shut down schools, closed restaurants, and left grocery stores sold out.

The Washington Post reports the source of the spill was a tank at Freedom Industries that leaked a coal preparation foaming agent. The chemical overflowed a containment area and then ran into the river. The size of the spill has not yet been confirmed. The chemical in question, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is not toxic itself, according to state environmental officials, but can be harmful if swallowed. It also smells strongly of licorice which may have led to its discovery, via the Charleston Daily Mail:

Kanawha County officials began receiving reports of a strong licorice smell throughout the valley at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday. They tracked it down to Freedom Industries, located on Barlow Drive just outside of Charleston.
The smell was caused by one of the company's products, which had leaked from a containment area into the Elk River, said C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County Deputy Emergency Manager. ...
"It smells like licorice," Sigman said. "The company never called us. We figured out what it was by the smell and figured out who used it."

Officials from the company, which makes chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, have not commented since the spill, but are expected to release a statement today.

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