Chemical Spill In West Virginia Leads To State Of Emergency

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency in nine counties because of water contamination. Approximately 300,000 people have been affected as a chemical has leached into the water supply.

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In West Virginia, federal authorities have launched an investigation. They're tasked to find out how a chemical spill contaminated the water supply of more than 300,000 people. Scores of businesses and schools closed today and residents were told not to use tap water for anything but flushing the toilet. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra has the story.

ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: At West Virginia State University today, people were lined up with jugs waiting to get water from tanker trucks. The trucks brought in thousands of gallons of clean water from Pennsylvania to the nine counties around the capital of Charleston affected by the leak. Barry Copley was frustrated.

BARRY COPLEY: You know, no coffee, can't take a bath, can't wash dishes. I mean, this is probably the worst thing we've ever had to happen, you know.

MARRA: Copley says his state made it through big weather disasters the past two years but what's happening now is quite a bit different.

COPLEY: I didn't realize how much water affects your life. You know, it's something I guess we all just take for granted because it's always there.

MARRA: The contamination came from a leak in a storage tank at Freedom Industries. It produces specialty chemicals for the coal and steel industries. They're also located less than a mile upstream on the Elk River from where the region gets its drinking water. As many as 5,000 gallons of methylcyclohexene methanol leaked from a storage tank. It's not known how much actually made it into the river. The chemical is used to separate newly mined coal from rock and dirt.

West Virginia health officials are still unsure of other things, not just the size of the spill but how much of the chemical can be ingested safely. Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, says there's also no timeline for when customers can use the water again.

JEFF MCINTYRE: We don't know that the water's not safe, but I can't say it is safe.

MARRA: The state poison control center has received more than 500 calls from people complaining of vomiting, eye irritation and skin blisters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working with state officials to continue to truck in water. Meanwhile, U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin says he's opened a criminal probe into the cause of Thursday's spill. For NPR News, I'm Ashton Marra in Charleston, West Virginia.

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