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Federal disaster declared in W.Va., where chemical spill caused water emergency

January 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Hundreds of thousands of citizens in West Virginia are heading into the weekend dealing with a major water emergency caused by a chemical spill.

Even as it’s disrupting lives, officials are still trying to get a handle on just what happened.

Earlier this evening, Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studio spoke with Charleston’s mayor.

But he begins with some background.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ground zero is this Freedom Industries plant that makes chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries. State inspectors say a foaming agent used in coal preparation leaked from a 40,000-gallon tank yesterday. Some of it overran a containment area, and ended up in the Elk River.

An estimated 300,000 people are affected in nine counties, many of them reporting a smell like black licorice. Emergency hot line centers like this one are fielding calls.

C.W. SIGMAN, Kanawha County, W.Va., Deputy Emergency Management Director: We have had some complaints about eyes burning, things of that nature. Best advice is to stay inside right now until they get this taken — taken care of.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, people are being told to avoid using tap water to bathe, drink, cook, or wash clothes and dishes.

Jeff McIntyre heads the Charleston Water Treatment Plant. He says the chemical is not especially toxic, but it’s not worth taking a chance.

JEFF MCINTYRE, West Virginia American Water Company: We don’t know that the water is not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Testing shows contamination levels in the river are already falling, but McIntyre says it’s too early to say how long it will take to clean the water system.

JEFF MCINTYRE: Our activities will be to go away from the treatment plant in concentric rings, if you like, flush the system and sample the system to make sure it’s safe for our customers. We may be able to put customers back in service by zones. I don’t think we are going to be able to do it, the entire area, all at once. So it’s going to be chasing the line as the water flows and testing and flushing as we go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For its part, Freedom Industries says its working nonstop to contain the leak and determine how much of the chemical got into the river.

In the meantime, bottled water and bags of ice have been flying off store shelves.

WOMAN: This is actually the third place I have been to trying to get water, so I have resorted to ice.

WOMAN: You’re going to melt this down. That’s what you are going to do, like you did back in them old days. Put it in a little tub, put it in there, and just take, you know, like a bird bath.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Obama has declared a federal disaster in the affected region, expediting aid. And federal prosecutors have launched an investigation.