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Thousands Of People In West Virginia Have No Water After Chemical Spill Triggers Disaster Declaration

Authorities issued a federal disaster declaration after more than 200,000 people in Charleston and surrounding counties were left without drinking water. A chemical spill in Elk River shut down the city.

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A chemical spill was discovered in the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, Jan. 9, leaving more than 200,000 people in Charleston and nine surrounding counties without drinking water as stores ran out of bottled water on Friday.

AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Jim Cole of Exeter, N.H., got the last few bottles of water at a store in South Charleston.

Residents were warned not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who declared a state of emergency. Schools and restaurants in the Charelston area have shut down.

AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Bob Wojcieszak

Charleston resident Niru Parikshak loads up the back of her car with bottled water on Thursday, Jan. 9. Sam's Club and every retailer for a 20-mile radius sold out of bottled water after the chemical leak.

The spill was caused when a tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility, began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, a compound used to wash coal of impurities. The leak was discovered a mile north of a water treatment plant on the Elk River.

AP Photo/The Charleston Gazette, Chris Dorst

A Freedom Industries worker places a boom in the Elk River at the site of the chemical leak.

The chemical overran its container and spilled into the river, contaminating the water near the West Virginia American Water Co. which was located about a mile from the leak.

AP Photo/Tyler Evert

The 40,000-gallon tank leaked "no more than 5,000 gallons" of the chemical, according to a state official from the Dept. of Environmental Protection.


While the licorice-smelling chemical is not lethal for humans, prolonged exposure in high concentrations can cause headaches, eye and skin irritations, and breathing difficulties. There have been no reports of sickness or death so far.

AP Photo/Tyler Evert

West Virginia American Water company's president, Jeff McIntyre, said the advisory affects up to 100,000 customers, or about 300,000 people.

After most stores ran out of bottled water as residents rushed to stock up on Thursday night, the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled water to emergency service agencies in the affected counties.

AP Photo/The Daily Mail, Marcus Constantino

City officials help out at a water distribution site set up at the South Charleston Recreation Center in South Charleston.

The site opened before 9 a.m. on Friday with bottled water and a tanker truck, but was expected to run out of water about 90 minutes later.


Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at

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