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January 10, 2014

300,000 in W.Va. without drinkable water; no timeline for fix

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There is no timeline for when 300,000 West Virginia residents can drink their tap water again, after thousands of gallons of unsafe chemicals leaked from a storage tank into the river that supplies water to households in nine counties.

FEMA distributed bottled water to residents at dozens of locations in the affected area Friday, and President Obama issued a disaster declaration for the region. Federal prosecutors announced they would investigate the chemical spill.

West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre said Friday that he could not say for sure if the water his company provides is safe, and he does not yet have a timeline for when it will be drinkable again. The affected counties are all in the area around the state capitol of Charleston, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

On Thursday afternoon, a chemical that McIntyre said his company doesn’t test for because “it isn’t supposed to be in the water,” entered the intake system on the Elk River. The substance -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a frothing agent used to clean coal -- leaked from a 40,000 gallon tank at the Freedom Industries chemical plant, then leached through the soil into the river. It then entered the water company’s system about 2 p.m. By 4 p.m., the filtration system could no longer handle the amount of contamination in the water, McIntyre said.

McIntyre said he did not yet know how much of the chemical may have leached into the water, but a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson said he was “confident no more than 5,000 gallons escaped.”

“A certain amount of that got into the river,” said the DEP’s Tom Aluise. “Some of that was contained.”

No production or actual coal cleaning goes on at the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River, where he said the company operates a tank farm for storage. The leaky tank is close to the river, Aluise said. The chemical, which is not water soluble and may look like cooking oil, will dissipate as it floats downstream, he advised.

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