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Chemical leak threatens 100,000 in West Virginia

A family shops for bottled water at a supermarket, as many in West Virginia are doing after a chemical spill in the Elk River.
A family shops for bottled water at a supermarket, as many in West Virginia are doing after a chemical spill in the Elk River.
Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in several West Virginia counties Jan. 9, after a chemical leak contaminated the drinking water supply for about 100,000 in the Charleston area. West Virginia American Water was notified that a chemical used in coal mining had leaked into the Elk River upstream from its main water intake. The water supply feed all or parts of nine West Virginia counties.

The Charleston Daily Mail reports that county officials began tracking a strong licorice smell early Thursday morning. It was traced to a facility owned by Freedom Industries, the Etowah River Terminal. A storage tank was leaking and the containment system around the tank failed to hold the chemical. It leaked into the Elk River, the source of drinking water for many West Virginians. The Daily Mail says that the leak was stopped about two hours after it was discovered.

West Virginia American Water had this to say on its Facebook page:

West Virginia American Water has issued a DO NOT USE WATER NOTICE for all West Virginia American Water customers in Kanawha, Boone, Putnam, Lincoln, Logan, Clay, Roane and Jackson counties. A chemical spill occurred along the Elk River, causing contamination within the Kanawha Valley water system. Due to the nature of the contamination, as a precaution, customers should not use their water for any purpose. Bottled or alternative sources of water should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, bathing, food preparation, baby formula and all other purposes until further notice.

Media outlets throughout the region are reporting that stores have sold out of bottled water. Fire departments and municipalities have arranged for clean drinking water to be made available in some areas. It is not known when the water system will be free of chemical contamination.