A chemical spill left the water for 300 000 people in and around West Virginia's capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying on Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again for even mundane activities like showers and laundry.
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.
Officials are working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre.
“We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe,” McIntyre said on Friday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it's in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.
Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn't deadly. However, people across nine counties were told not to so much as wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhoea.
No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none were in serious or critical condition, said State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L Bowling.
The company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, discovered Thursday morning around 10.30am that the chemical was leaking from the bottom of a storage tank, said its president Gary Southern. Southern said the company worked all day and through the night to remove the chemical from the site and take it elsewhere. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the chemical from the ground at the site.
The spill brought West Virginia's most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and even forcing the Legislature to cancel its business for the day. Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled. -