CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal disaster declaration has been issued for a West Virginia chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water and prompted officials to order residents in nine counties not to bathe, brush their teeth or wash their clothes.
The declaration, made overnight, allows for direct federal assistance in dealing with the spill, Bill Hines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said early Friday. It remained unclear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration, or how long the advisory would last.
The federal move came shortly after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday when the spill from Freedom Industries hit a river and a nearby water treatment plant.
Customers of West Virginia American Water in the affected areas also got the order from Tomblin on Thursday night: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.
The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday.
Officials say the orders — which the water company also delivered to residents via automated telephone messages — were issued as a precaution, as they are still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.
"I don't know if the water is not safe," said water company president Jeff McIntyre. "Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can't say how long this (advisory) will last at this time."
McIntyre said the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Freedom Industries officials were unavailable for comment.
According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.
The emergency declaration involves customers in all or parts of the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. In the capital city of Charleston, a smell similar to licorice or cough syrup was evident in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply.
The smell was especially strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Marriott shut off all water to rooms, and then turned it back on so guests could flush toilets. Each guest was given two 16.9-ounce bottles of spring water upon returning to the hotel.
The West Virginia National Guard planned to mobilize at an air base at Charleston's Yeager Airport on Friday to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine counties, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina told The Associated Press.
"They're committing all necessary resources to help with this," Messina said Thursday night.
Messina said the drinking water will come from several different suppliers. After distribution, the various county agencies "will use their own game plans to distribute it, with hospitals and nursing homes getting priority," Messina said.
Most people weren't waiting for outside help.
Once word got out about the governor's declaration Thursday, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.
"It was chaos, that's what it was," cashier Danny Cardwell said.
Tomblin said the advisory also extends to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water.
At the Little India restaurant in Charleston, about 12 customers were asked to leave when bar manager Bill LaCourse learned about the shutdown notice.
West Virginia lawmakers who just started their session this week won't conduct business on Friday because of the problem and State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed.
Karlee Bolen, 16, of Charleston, said her family, including her parents, two sisters and brother, were considering the possibility of heading to her grandmother's home in Braxton County, where tap water was unaffected, an hour to the northeast.
"I kind of want to shower and brush my teeth," she said.
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.