Up to 300,000 people in West Virginia are without tap water following a chemical leak that occurred upriver of the state's largest water treatment plant. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, shutting down schools and businesses, and President Obama issued an emergency declaration ordering federal aid.
The spill occurred Thursday night on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia's capital. According to NPR, the leak originated in a storage tank at a site run by Freedom Industries, a company that produces specialty chemicals for the coal and steel industries.
"Nobody really knows how dangerous [the leak] could be," Tomblin said.
The chemical in question, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is used in the coal industry; according to health officials, it can cause "severe burning in the throat, vomiting and skin blistering." Residents in affected counties are being warned not to drink, cook or wash with their tap water. While the water company and state environmental workers test the water, emergency officials are setting up bottled water distribution centers.
UPDATED 1/10/2014 12:20 PM ET: The New York Times has more on the spill's origin:
The spill was discovered Thursday at a storage facility about a mile north of a water treatment plant on the Elk River, where a 48,000-gallon tank began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, a compound used to wash coal of impurities, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The chemical leaked from a hole in the bottom of the tank and then filled an overflow container before spilling into the river, said Thomas J. Aluise, a spokesman for the agency.
It is not clear how much of the chemical flowed into the river, which Mr. Aluise said looked like “cooking oil floating on top of the water.”