The federal government joined West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in declaring a state of emergency following a chemical spill along one of the state’s major rivers. The spill has caused authorities to issue a water ban in nine counties that could affect an estimated 100,000 residents.
Federal officials are now launching an investigation into the cause of the spill, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced Friday.
The emergency and accompanying ban were issued after the toxic chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used to process coal, leaked from a tank at a Freedom Industries plant in the capital city Charleston and spilled into the Elk River. The full extent of the spill remains unknown.
“Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can’t say how long this [advisory] will last,” West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre told the Associated Press.
The chemical is not lethal even its most concentrated form, McIntyre said, but according to the AP it is a skin and eye irritant that can be harmful if swallowed or inhaled.
Residents in the Mountain State’s nine affected counties were instructed by officials to not “to drink, cook with or wash” with local tap water due to the increased level of toxicity, according to the Charleston Gazette. The water ban affects any establishment that uses tap water, including normal residences but also restaurants, hospitals, and nursing facilities. Customers in the capital, where parts of the city are redolent with a smell described as “licorice-like,” rushed to buy up available bottled water and paper dishes. The West Virginia National Guard planned Friday to deliver bottled water to emergency services agencies.
Counties affected by the spill include Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. Schools will be closed in at least five counties.