Mining Chemical Spill in West Virginia Leaves 300,000 Thirsty

Elk River leak causes widespread school, business closings.

Charleston resident Niru Parikshak loads up the back of her car with bottled water Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in Charleston, W. Va.
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Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents are subject to a tap water ban, following a chemical leak Thursday on the Elk River near Charleston, the state's capital. The ban, affecting West Virginia American Water customers, also caused schools, restaurants and bars to close as a result.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in nine counties and the White House issued a federal disaster declaration by Friday morning to help expedite assistance to the region. Uncontaminated water is also headed to local distribution centers to help residents cope with the ban.

The chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, is a foaming agent used for coal mining, according to The Associated Press.


Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, told The New York Times that MCHM smells like licorice, looks like "cooking oil floating on top of the water" and can cause rashes, make breathing difficult and irritate the eyes and digestive tract.

[READ: Obama's EPA Makes New Carbon Limits Official]

The chemical leaked from a 48,000-gallon tank owned by Freedom Industries, a company that produces chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, and entered the river about a mile north of a water treatment plant, according to the Times.

Affected residents are only authorized to use tap water to flush toilets and fight fires, according to the state.

"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Gov. Tomblin said in a statement, Reuters reported. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools."

Residents have already made a run on bottled water at supermarkets.

"People have been grabbing it like crazy," Kerstin Halstead told the Charleston Gazette. "Some people were getting – well, they could have shared more."

A spokeswoman for Tomblin's office said it's unclear when the ban will get lifted, according to Reuters.

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