An Environmental Disaster Continues To Unfold In West Virginia
Two days after the governor of West Virginia declared a state of emergency, a chemical spill into the Elk River continues to cut 300,000 people off from water for drinking and cleaning in what continues to be a full-blown disaster.
A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.
Officials are working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low-enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.
Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people across nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.
No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none was in serious or critical condition, said State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling.
The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning about 10:30 a.m. that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president, Gary Southern. Southern said the company worked all day and through the night 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,” he said.
What a relief! “The risk has been mitigated” sounds like some of the finest business affairs department spin money can buy. And speaking of what money can buy (and spin), there is still a shortage of drinkable water:
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies for residents.
“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” Tomblin said.
By Saturday morning, more than a dozen truckloads of bottled water had arrived in the affected counties and was being distributed to residents at volunteer fire departments, community centers and other sites.
County emergency officials reported no problems at the sites, with the exception of one in Kanawha County that had to be moved Friday because of traffic congestion.
Think Progress has several jaw-dropping images in a photo essay on the disaster.