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West Virginia chemical spill brings state to screeching halt

W. Virginia's Elk River one of several in the state now contaminated by a chemical spill.
W. Virginia's Elk River one of several in the state now contaminated by a chemical spill.Wikimedia Commons.org

No bathing, brushing of teeth, cooking of food or washing of clothes can occur in 17 West Virginia counties due to a chemical spill that even has new mothers unable to prepare baby formula with boiled tap water. Freedom Industries is responsible for the leak that released 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the state's water system accidentally, according to Fox News on Jan. 10.

West Virginia lawmakers are up in arms about it, since their offices are joining with restaurants and other businesses, including schools in at least five counties, which must all now close indefinitely until the water can be purified. And Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for those impacted by the spill on Thursday.

Approximately 17,000 customers overall are impacted, which includes the states of Virginia and Ohio, too. But 100,000 have been told overall not to drink the water, shower in it or use it for any purposes that could make them susceptible to body irritations or internal dangers. And the warning gives no potential date for when it would be safe to resume use.

Flushing it out, that's going to take some time," Democratic Senate Majority Leader John Unger of Martinsville said about the next step in the removal process.

Elk River was the recipient of the foaming agent normally used in the coal process at Freedom. But not before the chemical slipped past a containment area at the company after overrunning one of the tanks that held it. And now other rivers that Elk flows into are impacted too.

West Virginia American Water treatment plant reported that the chemical was in a weakened condition by the time it made its way to their facility, but they have also reported that "the water is contaminated" and does not need to be used by people. Exact details about the size of the spill or the concentration level they are dealing with is not known yet. But no reports of sickness have been made thus far.

The Emergency Management Agency has been asked to assist with bottles of water, but panic ensued upon the news advisory that tap water was unsafe to use, prompting citizens to rush convenience stores and grocery stores for all bottled water on the shelves.

It was chaos. That's what it was," described a convenience store clerk named Danny Cardwell near Charleston's capital.

NPR reports that this chemical is harmful if swallowed, could be harmful if inhaled and is known to cause skin and eye irritations if contact is made. Washing your body, brushing your teeth and using contaminated water, even if it has been boiled, is strongly discouraged by authorities right now. And that is making life almost impossible for the thousands of people impacted by a sudden need for purified water when the stores are sold out of it.

A licorice odor alerted authorities to the contamination leak, so smelling that in your home could indicate your house is one that has been contaminated at a higher level than that of others.

At this time the only safe way to use the water in the contaminated counties of West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio is for flushing purposes or emergency fire control, according to authorities.