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Coal Chemical Spill Turns Tap Water Toxic in W. Virginia

Leaking storage tank containing 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol spills into river, contaminating drinking supply for hundreds of thousands

- Jon Queally, staff writer

West Viriginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency following a Thursday chemical leak at a coal industry facility along the Elk River, a source of drinking water for nine counties and hundreds of thousands of people.

Crews clean up a chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., which compromised the public water supply of eight counties on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (Tyler Evert / AP) The toxin reportedly spilled, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is used to process coal. Though not cited as lethal, health officials told reporters that the chemical is a skin and eye irritant and can be very harmful if consumed.

"Please don't drink, don't wash with, don't do anything with the water," Gov. Tomblin said in a statement.

"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," he continued. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools."

Later, the federal government also issued a state of emergency for the effected area, promising additional resources.

Reuters reports:

Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health Departments, ordered the closure of all restaurants and schools receiving water from the West Virginia American Water company.

Schools would be shut on Friday across many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and Putnam, the West Virginia Department of Education said on its website.

Tomblin's spokeswoman, Amy Shuler Goodwin, said she did not know when the ban would be lifted.

The spill originated with Freedom Industries, a Charleston company, according to Laura Jordan, external affairs manager for West Virginia American Water.

It occurred above the intake of the Kanawha Valley water treatment plant in Charleston, which serves 100,000 homes and businesses, or 250,000 to 300,000 people, Jordan said.

"It could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could potentially cause skin and eye irritation," Jordan said.

The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection got a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries site, where they found a leaking storage unit, Shuler Goodwin said.

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