CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thursday night, residents of Kanawha County, W.Va., reported a noxious smell to the district’s emergency authorities. In response, inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Protection were called into the area. The DEP inspectors traced the odor, which they described as similar to licorice, to a chemical storage facility owned by the Freedom Industries.
DEP officials arrived at the facility late Thursday morning and discovered a hole in one of the company’s 48,000 gallon storage tanks. The tank was found to be leaking a chemical compound known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or MCHM, a chemical primarily used to clean industrial mining equipment. By the time the DEP officials arrived, they estimated 5,000 gallons of MCHM had already spilled from the tank.
The leak’s exact time of origin has thus far been undetermined, but by Friday morning the MCHM had reached the Elk River, contaminating the water table of Charleston and nine surrounding counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane.
The federal government declared a state of emergency on Friday, in addition to West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s advisory against consuming, washing or cooking with tap water in the afflicted counties. West Virginia Water Company President Jeff McIntyre stated at a press conference Saturday that the advisory would affect approximately 300,000 people, including the entirety of the state capitol.
According to the Toxicology Data Network of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MCHM can pose a significant danger to humans who come into close contact with the chemical. Short-term exposure can affect breathing, irritate eyes and cause skin rashes. Inhalation of the compound can damage vital organs and even prove fatal.
Thousands of concerned residents have contacted the Poison Control Center with questions about MCHM and its effects. As of Saturday, the Department of Health and Human Resources has released that 32 people have been admitted to area hospitals, with symptoms including vomiting and nausea. So far, there have been no reported fatalities.
Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, made a statement on Friday, saying, “We’d like to start by apologizing to the people of West Virginia, our friends and neighbors. This incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruptions to everybody’s daily life this incident has caused.”
Currently, FEMA is working to clean the Elk River, while the Red Cross and the National Guard continue to distribute clean water to the region’s residents.
In the mean time, the federal government has ordered Freedom Industries to drain its remaining storage tanks until they are determined to be safe and functional.
Prior to the leak, a report by the Environmental Protection Agency had found no violations at the facility within the last three years.
Booth Goodwin, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, has stated his office has opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.
“We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate, based on the evidence we uncover,” Goodwin said.