Toxic Chemical Spill in Charleston Leaves 300,000 Without Water

A chemical spill in West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston has left at least 300,000 people without safe tap water.  State officials reported approximately 28,400 liters (or 7,500 gallons) of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol had leaked out of a 150,000 liter tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River, near the state’s largest water treatment intake plant.

According to media reports, the town’s tap water is now so toxic it can be set on fire. It turns out the plant which stored the chemical hadn’t been inspected in 20 years.

The spill came from a tank belonging to Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, authorities said.

The leak was initially noticed late last week, following complaints to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odor in the tap water. While some of the chemical was contained before reaching the Elk River, it is not known how much 4-methylcyclohexane methanol made it into the water supply.

It could take days for clean tap water to be restored to the people of Charleston. Currently, 73 people had gone to area emergency rooms and five have been admitted to hospitals for observation.

Their symptoms included nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin, officials said. During the weekend, businesses and restaurants across town were closed and will most likely remain closed until clean tap water is restored.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, with the affected area including the state capital of Charleston, the state’s largest city. President Barack Obama has issued an emergency declaration.

Business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet aisles of merchandise around West Virginia’s capital city were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they would take from the spill. Virtually every restaurant was closed Saturday, unable to use water to prepare food, wash dishes or clean employees’ hands. Meanwhile, hotels had emptied and foot traffic was down at many retail stores.

At Charleston’s Yeager Airport, a combined seven inbound and outbound flights were cancelled. The reason for the cancellations was an agreement between the airlines and unions for flight crews and pilots that hotels meet a certain threshold of service, and the lack of water violates the agreement, said airport spokesman Brian Belcher. Arrangements were being made to house flight personnel in hotels about 40 miles away.

Most visitors have left Charleston while locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find somewhere they can get a hot meal or a shower. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets means that the spill is an emergency not just for the environment, but also for the local businesses.

Officials said chemical levels in the water were declining but the spill forced schools and businesses to close in Charleston and surrounding communities.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, are currently investigating the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol spill.

According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it merely stores chemicals and doesn’t produce them.

By Saturday morning, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or a million liters, to West Virginia for distribution at sites, including fire departments.

Tomblin said he would work with his environmental agency chief on tightening regulation of chemical storage facilities in the current legislative session.

Most of us take our clean tap water for granted. It’s hard to imagine toxic chemicals contaminating our running water…that would mean no showers, no cooking, no brushing your teeth!

Feel free to contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys for more information at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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