As hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia enter a fourth day without clean tap water following a chemical spill, frustrations are beginning to mount.
Most visitors have cleared out of 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. Meanwhile, business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet aisles of merchandise around West Virginia’s capital were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they’ll take from the chemical spill.
The emergency began Thursday following complaints to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odor in the tap water. The source: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which had leaked out of a 40,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River.
It could take days for clean tap water to flow again. First, water sample test results must consistently show that the chemical’s presence in the public water system is at or below 1 parts per million, the level recommended by federal agencies, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said Saturday at a news conference.
Officials said that water samples were “trending in that direction,” and most were below that level, but flushing would not begin until readings were under the 1 part per million level for a 24-hour period. More than 100 more samples were due to be tested overnight.
State officials said Saturday they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the Freedom Industries plant in Charleston. Some of the chemical, a foaming agent used in coal processing, was contained before flowing into the Elk River; it’s not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.
Meanwhile, 800,000 liters of fresh water were scheduled to be shipped into the affected area Saturday and Sunday night.
Residents in nine counties were told to not drink, bathe in, or wash their dishes or clothes with their water, which could only be used for flushing toilets. The order applies to about 300,000 people.
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.
“I haven’t been able to cook anything at home and was hoping they were open,” Bill Rogers, 52, told the Associated Press outside a closed Tudor’s Biscuit World in Marmet, just east of Charleston. “It seems like every place is closed. It’s frustrating. Really frustrating.”
There’s no question businesses have been hurt — particularly restaurants and hotels, said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state’s largest regional chamber of commerce.
“I don’t know that it can be quantified at this point because we don’t know how long it will last,” Ballard said. “I’m hoping a solution by early next week so business can get back to normal.”
The Alliance is urging business owners to check their insurance policies to see if they can make claims over lost sales. It plans to hold workshops to assist businesses with those issues, Ballard said.
In downtown Charleston, the Capitol Street row of restaurants and bars were locked up. Amid them, The Consignment Company was open, but business was miserable. The second-hand shop’s owner said she relies on customers who come downtown to eat and drink.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Tammy Krepshaw said. “I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It’s sad.”
State officials were working over the weekend on alternative sources of water that may allow restaurants to reopen. Several businesses that had arranged other sources of water were inspected Saturday.
“We will work around the clock, 24-7, and try to open … as many businesses as possible in the next couple of days,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County boards of health.
At Charleston’s Yeager Airport, a combined 7 inbound and outbound flights were canceled. 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.
On Saturday, blame was placed squarely at Freedom Industries for the spill, with West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Director Mike Dorsey saying that the company “is responsible, therefore they are responsible for cleanup.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he will work with his environmental agency head to look into tighter regulation of chemical storage facilities in the ongoing legislative session.
“There are certain reporting things that companies have to do,” Tomblin said. “And I do think we have to look at them to make sure this kind of incident does not happen again.”
Federal authorities, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, began investigating how the foaming agent escaped from the Freedom Industries plant and seeped into the Elk River. On Saturday, an investigative team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) deployed to the scene of the spill.
But according to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn’t produce them.
Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, apologized Friday for disrupting so many lives in southern West Virginia and said the company still does not know how much of the chemical spilled from its operation into the river.
“We’d like to start by sincerely apologizing to the people in the affected counties of West Virginia,” Southern said. “Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruptions to everybody’s daily life this incident has caused.”
At least four people have been hospitalized and hundreds of residents called the West Virginia Poison Center to report concerns or symptoms related to the spill, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin, state health officials told Reuters.
The leak was discovered Thursday morning from the bottom of a storage tank. Southern said Freedom Industries 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,” Southern said. He said the company didn’t know how much had leaked.
The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.
Freedom Industries was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.