CHARLESTON, W.Va. - 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 today it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do 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 today. 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 they shouldn't even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.
No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none was 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 about 10:30 a.m. 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.
"We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility," he said.
Southern said he didn't think the chemical posed a public danger. He also said the company didn't know how much leaked.