Federal prosecutors are opening an investigation into a West Virginia chemical spill that has contaminated drinking water for more than 300,000 people. As a result of the catastrophe, state officials are still uncertain as to when the water will be drinkable again.
This Thursday at a storage facility owned by on the Elk River, a 48,000-gallon tank began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, a compound used to wash coal of impurities, went on to affect the city of Charleston and 9 surrounding counties, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The chemical, which some say smells like licorice, can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing. Officials are still trying to determine how much of the chemical had leaked into the river or what its potential health impact could be.
Health officials for the Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County health departments ordered the closure of all restaurants, tattoo parlors and schools that rely on water from the West Virginia American Water company.
According to the West Virginia Department of Education’s website, starting this Friday schools would be closed across many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas, and Putnam.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties as a result of the spill.
“West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing,” Tomblin said in a statement. “Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools.”
Many see this latest environmental disaster as a result of the push for deregulation by many conservative groups. With little government oversight, it’s been shown time and time again that privatized industry is willing to put the public’s health at grave risk.
“We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Company, which supplies most of the household water in the area, said at a news conference on Friday. “The only appropriate use for this water is toilet flushing.”
Watch a clip from McIntyre’s press conference below: