Schools and businesses have shut down and shops have sold out of bottled water following a chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia that has affected 300,000 people in nine counties. The White House has declared the incident a federal disaster.
American President Barack Obama “ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts,” said a US administration statement on Friday morning.
Federal authorities are opening an investigation into what caused the leak that poisoned the river and shut down much of the West Virginia’s capital, Charleston and surrounding counties. US Attorney Booth Goodwin said authorities will take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence found, reports the Associated Press.
Late on Thursday, West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a state of emergency for Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties.
Residents of these counties are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing. Health officials recommend it to be used only for flushing toilets and fighting fires. Currently it is unclear when the ban will be lifted.
Water distribution centers began to open in affected areas early on Friday, according to The Charleston Gazette.
“You must bring your own containers to receive water and some locations have limited hours and a limit on gallons available,” the paper said.
Local media published photos of locals lining up in shops to buy bottled water and empty shelves.
The spill of chemical used in the coal industry occurred Thursday on the Elk River in the state’s capital Charleston, upriver from West Virginia’s largest water treatment plant. The foaming agent, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area.
Freedom – a company that produces chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries – made its first comment on the situation only more than a day after the incident.
“Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries’ first priority. We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities… and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue,” Gary Southern, the President of the company said in a statement released early Friday afternoon.
“Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM… that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup,” the text reads as cited by WSAZ.