The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, was spilled into the Elk River from a tank at Freedom Industries’ washing facility in Kanawha County late Thursday.
The amount of spilled MCHM, which washes impurities from coal, is not yet known.
West Virginia American Water officials told regional media that its staff has been conducting hourly water tests, and residents of Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties – totaling about 300,000 people – are under orders to do nothing more with water than flush toilets.
As state and federal officials continue to examine the incident, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan told local station WSAZ that the leak is believe to be at ground level and may not be new.
“[T]there is a possibility this leak has been going on for some time before it was discovered Thursday,” she said.
MCHM smells sweet, some reported like candy or licorice, and has a presence similar to cooking oil floating atop water.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources issued an alert to impacted residents with symptoms of MCHM exposure, which include severe throat burning, severe eye irritation, vomiting, breathing difficulties and even severe skin irritation including blistering.
State governor Earl Ray Tomblin, which issued a state of emergency for the region late Thursday night, announced Friday morning that the White House approved a federal emergency declaration to help with the situation.
“The sampling plan is a coordinated effort with West Virginia American Water Company and the state Bureau of Public Health, and our emergency responders,” he said.
“This process will take time, but we continue to work quickly to provide information related to the ability to lift the ‘do not use’ ordered by West Virginia American Water Company.
"Water supplies have been relocated and have begun to be distributed to affected areas. Continue to refrain from using the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing and washing…[and] do not boil this water or use it to supply oxygen machines.”
What followed was nothing short of chaos, as some told media, as many made a run on local stores overnight Friday for emergency items like bottled water.
According to West Virginia American Water, MCHM-contaminated water cannot be treated.
Freedom Industries has so far not released public statement on the leak.