(CNN) — The water that some 300,000 West Virginians usually depend on to slake their thirst, wash their bodies and brush their teeth is now good for only one thing — flushing their toilets, authorities told them Friday.
“We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co., told reporters about the water his company provides to customers in central and southwestern West Virginia.
That’s been the case since Thursday, when residents of Kanawha County reported a foul odor — similar to licorice — in the air.
Investigators from the Kanawha County Fire Department and the state Department of Environmental Protection soon found where it all started — a leak from a 48,000-gallon storage tank along the Elk River, which is a regional water source.
The chemical had overflowed a containment area around the tank, then migrated over land and through the soil into the river.
McIntyre said Friday he didn’t believe the substance — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — was still flowing. At the same time, that doesn’t mean the situation will be resolved soon, so people can drink and bathe again.
“We have no timeline,” said the utility executive.
While there haven’t been widespread sicknesses, the ordeal is already having a profound impact. Businesses — such as 15 McDonald’s in the area, according to their ownership group — have shut down. Hospitals have had to take emergency measures to conserve water. And residents have been left scrambling, as evidenced by empty shelves and growing worries.
“It’s all very hectic,” said Patricia Pearl of Charleston. “You don’t even want to go to the grocery store. I think everyone is in a panic.”
Emergency rooms busy, businesses closed
By 4 p.m. Thursday, authorities determined the water was contaminated. Within two hours, officials issued the stop-use warning — a move that McIntyre said was unprecedented — with automatic calls going out to customers soon thereafter.
The notice affects customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties, including Charleston, the state’s capital and its most populous city.
“This has been devastating to the public at large and to the people that live in our city,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said.
The emergency’s ripple effects included the closure Friday of the state Supreme Court of Appeals in Charleston, courts in Boone and Lincoln counties, and the cancellation of classes at West Virginia State University.
In addition to shuttering her shop Flowers & More on Friday — usually her busiest day — Pearl noted other ripple effects, like how her 60-year-old husband’s physical therapy session tied to a recent knee surgery was canceled.
“The problem is that no one seems to know when we’ll have the water restored,” she said.
First responders and hospitals saw a rush of activity after the alert went out. Kanawha County Commission president Kent Carper said more than 1,000 calls were placed in four or five hours to the 911 center, 24 of them for emergency medical services — five of which led to people being taken to hospitals.
A spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water Co., Laura Jordan, said the company got calls about illnesses, but none of them appeared serious.
“We just advise customers, if they are feeling something that isn’t right, to seek medical attention.”
Many — perhaps too many — did just that.
“Our emergency rooms have been very busy with individuals unnecessarily concerned and presenting no symptoms,” Charleston Area Medical Center said.
The water restrictions affected the hospital in other ways, too. It put into place linen conservation and alternative cleaning methods and turned away all but emergency patients.
Leaked chemical used to wash coal
So what’s causing all this?
It starts with the crippled tank at a chemical storage facility belonging to Freedom Industries that is located about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water plant, according to McIntyre.
Carper said Freedom’s chemical tank farm was part of a former Pennzoil refinery and had been there since the 1930s or 1940s. The company’s president, Gary Southern, said Freedom “has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination.” That company doesn’t yet know exactly how much of the chemical got out.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency — which doesn’t yet have an “official role” in the response — has taken no enforcement actions against the company during the past five years, agency spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said.
The leaked chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is used to wash coal before it goes to market, explained United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith.
Smith said that people who work in the Freedom plant wear hard hats, visors and gloves, but not respirators.
The chemical could cause “skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that’s at full strength of the chemical,” said Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, citing an assessment from a Freedom Industries toxicologist.
Jordan pointed out the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in the water system isn’t full strength; it’s been diluted by the river.
At the same time, McIntrye said, “It is not intended to be in the water (or) distribution system. … Once it’s in there, there’s no more treatment for it.”
Governor: ‘I do not know how long this will last’
The rush now is on to fully assess and address the problem, including the chemical leak that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin characterized as “unacceptable.”
Having declared a state of emergency affecting the nine involved counties, Tomblin urged West Virginians to look out for one another — especially small children and the elderly.
To that point, he announced a “call to action drive” through Friday evening at the State Capitol to collect items such as bottled water, sanitizer, liquid baby formula, paper and plastic plates and utensils for those in need. This is in addition to water stations set up in malls, churches, high schools, recreation centers and fire departments.
The federal government has gotten involved as well, with President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
FEMA said Friday that 75 trucks — each carrying about 4,900 gallons of water — were expected to begin arriving in Charleston by early evening.
And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said she and other federal authorities is looking into what happened.
“We’re conducting an investigation that will include a review of all records, all communications, interviews and an examination of the premises,” Goodwin said. “We want to find out if someone is responsible.”
Meanwhile, West Virginia American Water is working intently as well, including teaming with DuPont and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the contamination level. Jordan said the system would be flushed and may be returned to service in zones, but she would not speculate when that might occur.
The water company also has provided 12 tanker trucks filled with water, and bought four tractor-trailer loads of bottled water for distribution to those in need, McIntyre said.
Tomblin noted that “there is no shortage of bottled water,” but urged people to see a doctor immediately if they come down with nausea, dizziness, or eye or skin irritation. And he didn’t make any promises as to when this emergency would end.
“I do not know how long this will last,” the governor said.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, AnneClaire Stapleton, Mike Ahlers, Paul Caron, Ashley Fantz, Ed Payne, Marlena Baldacci, Kevin Conlon, Susan Candiotti and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.