(CNN) — The water that some 300,000 people in West Virginia usually depend on to slake their thirst, wash their bodies and brush their teeth is now good for only one thing — flushing their toilets, authorities told them Friday.
“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 Co., told reporters about the water his company provides to customers in central and southwestern West Virginia.
That’s the way things have been since Thursday night, when residents of Kanawha County reported a foul odor — similar to licorice — in the air. By Friday afternoon, it was unclear when the situation would revert to normal. “We have no timeline,” McIntyre said.
Investigators from the Kanawha County Fire Department and the state Department of Environmental Protection quickly found the source — a leak from a 48,000-gallon storage tank along the Elk River, which serves as the source of water for the 1,500 miles of pipeline that carry water to customers in the region.
The chemical had overflowed a containment area around the tank and then migrated over land and through the soil into the river.
“I do not believe it is continuing to flow,” McIntyre said.
But finding the source didn’t solve the problem. By 4 p.m. Thursday, the odor was coming from the water that had already been treated, meaning it was contaminated, McIntyre said. Within two hours, officials issued the stop-use warning, a move that McIntyre described as unprecedented.
By Thursday night, an autodialer was calling customers to alert them to the problem.
In all, more than 1,000 calls were placed in four or five hours to the 911 center, 24 of them for emergency medical services, which took five people to hospitals, said Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, who cited the number of people affected.
“This has been devastating to the public at large and to the people that live in our city,” said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.
The devastation has involved businesses as well. At least 15 McDonald’s restaurants were shut in the area, according to their ownership group.
Patricia Peal told CNN she had to close her Charleston shop Flowers & More on Friday. “It’s usually our busiest day,” she said. “I just cannot operate like this.
“It’s all very hectic. You don’t even want to go to the grocery store. I think everyone is in a panic.”
She was using water she had stored at her home and managed to pick up a couple more cases at Kroger.
Her 60-year-old husband had knee surgery this week but can’t start physical therapy because it has been canceled until the water is back.
“The problem is that no one seems to know when we’ll have the water restored,” she said.
The tank is located on chemical storage facility belonging to Freedom Industries and is located about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water plant, McIntyre said.
Carper said the company’s chemical tank farm was part of a former Pennzoil refinery and had been there since the 1930s or 1940s.
The leaked chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is harmful if swallowed, said Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. It is used to wash coal before it goes to market.
“When coal comes out of the ground, it’s got pieces of rock, it’s got other things that are associated with the coal-mining process that aren’t coal — mainly rock and dust and things like that, so it’s sent to a cleaning plant,” said Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers, in a telephone interview.
People who work in the plant would wear hard hats, visors and gloves, but not respirators, he said.
“It is not intended to be in water,” McIntyre said.”Unfortunately, this is in the distribution system. Once it’s in there, there’s no more treatment for it.”
A toxicologist with Freedom Industries told the water company there is “some health risk” associated with this chemical, said Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water.
“The safety sheet indicated there could be some skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that’s at full strength of the chemical,” Jordan said. “The chemical was diluted in the river.”
In his first public comments on the matter, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said Friday afternoon that residents’ safety had been his company’s first priority since he learned about the leak.
“We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities … and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue,” he said in a prepared statement. “Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination.”
He added that the company was working to determine how much of the chemical leaked and was setting up an incident command center.
The EPA has taken no enforcement actions against the company during the past five years, said agency spokeswoman Alisha Johnson.
“As of now, we do not have an official role in the response” to the spill, said Johnson, who noted that the state is leading the response.
The do-not-use notice remains in effect for the customers in nine counties served by the company, he said. Customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties are affected.
A spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water Co., Laura Jordan, said the company had received calls about illnesses, but none of them were serious.
“We just advise customers if they are feeling something that isn’t right to seek medical attention.”
Many — perhaps too many — did just that.
“Our emergency rooms have been very busy with individuals unnecessarily concerned and presenting no symptoms,” Charleston Area Medical Center said.
The water restrictions affected the hospital, too. It put into place linen conservation and alternative cleaning methods and turned away all but emergency patients.
Residents moved quickly to stock up on bottled water.
“We managed to get the last five bottles of water at 7-Eleven last night,” Charleston resident Beth Turley told CNN. “We are OK right now on water. We’re just drinking sports drinks and teas, things like that right now.”
“There was a run on water at every Walmart and convenience store in the county,” said Carper.
On Thursday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties.
“Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools,” the governor said. “I’ve been working with our National Guard and Office of Emergency Services in an effort to provide water and supplies through the county emergency services offices as quickly as possible.”
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
FEMA said Friday that 75 trucks — each carrying 18,500 liters of water — were expected to begin arriving in Charleston by early evening.
And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said she and other federal authorities have opened an investigation. “We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover,” she said.
Jordan said the company was working with DuPont and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the level of contamination.
He said that the system would be flushed and may be returned to service in zones, but would not speculate when that might occur.
Meanwhile, the company has provided 12 tanker trucks filled with water, and bought four tractor-trailer loads of bottled water for distribution to those in need, McIntyre said.
And water stations were being set up in malls, churches, high schools, recreation centers and fire departments.
The emergency’s ripple effects included the closure Friday of the state supreme court of appeals in Charleston, courts in Boone and Lincoln counties, and the cancellation of classes at West Virginia State University.