Hundreds of West Virginia residents are complaining of exposure symptoms after a crippling chemical spill compromised the public water supply for thousands of people and forced the closure of schools businesses, and restaurants in the state capital.
By Friday evening, 737 people had 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.
Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the state’s poison control center, said the symptoms vary “from very mild to much more bothersome.” She told Reuters at least 70 people have been seen by an emergency room doctor, though only a handful have been admitted to hospitals.
About 300,000 people in nine counties entered their third day Saturday without being able to drink, bathe in, or wash dishes or clothes with their tap water. The only allowed use of the water was for flushing toilets. Officials remain unclear when it might be safe 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.
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.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies for residents.
Officials in Kanawha County said late Friday that 16 tractor trailers filled with bottled water would be placed strategically at locations throughout the county starting at 8 a.m. ET.
Officials are working with a Tennessee company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday.
For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low-enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.
The leak was discovered Thursday morning from the bottom of a storage tank. Southern said the company 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, although officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, Aluise said.
Freedom Industries was ordered Friday night to remove chemicals from its remaining above-ground tanks, Aluise added.
The company was already cited for causing air pollution stemming from the odor first reported Thursday, Aluise said.
The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. The spill has forced businesses, restaurants and schools to shut down and forced the Legislature to cancel its business for the day.
“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” Tomblin said.
At a Kroger near a DuPont plant along the Kanawha River, customers learned the grocery store had been out since early Friday.
Robert Stiver was unable to find water at that and at least a dozen other stores in the area and worried about how he’d make sure his cats had drinkable water.
“I’m lucky. I can get out and look for water. But what about the elderly? They can’t get out. They need someone to help them,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.