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Chemical Leak Causes Water Emergency In West Virginia

More than 100,000 customers of one water company in West Virginia have been warned not to drink, cook or wash with the water coming from their taps because of chemicals that seeped into the Elk River near Charleston on Thursday.

The warning covers all or parts of nine counties (listed below). More than 480,000 people live in the affected area — one-quarter of the state's population. Some surely get their water from wells that were not touched by the spill. But as The Charleston Gazette reports, so many people have been affected that "residents swarmed grocery stores, convenience stores and anywhere else with bottled water Thursday evening, and shelves were quickly depleted."

Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells our Newscast Desk that the warning "was issued after methylcyclohexene methanol — a chemical used in a coal-washing process — leaked into the local water supply of the capitol city of Charleston and surrounding areas."

The chemical came from a storage tank at a site run by Freedom Industries, Ashton says. That company produces specialty chemicals for the coal and steel industries.

According to Ashton, "customers were directed not to consume or even use tap water except for flushing and fire protection. [Officials say] consuming the water could cause severe burning in the throat, vomiting and skin blistering."

Officials of West Virginia American Water, whose customers have been affected, said their treatment facility "which is near the leak site on the Elk River, could handle the leak" and safely treat the water, the Gazette says.

But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, D, declared a state of emergency Thursday — saying that "nobody really knows how dangerous [the leak] could be."

The governor's decision was followed overnight by an announcement that federal officials have also declared a state of emergency in the affected areas. That should speed up federal assistance.

The Gazette adds that:

"Water was being transported into the affected counties, and emergency officials said they planned to set up distribution centers.

"Col. Mike Cadle at the state Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing said 51 tractor-trailers loaded with water were headed to West Virginia from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Maryland."

The affected counties:

-- Boone

-- Clay

-- Jackson

-- Kanawha

-- Lincoln

-- Logan

-- Putnam

-- Roane

Also: the Culloden area of Cabell County.

Update at 10:10 a.m. ET. Tests Have Been "Inconclusive":

"Officials from West Virginia American Water say they have no estimate for when they might be able to begin flushing out the system and that recent tests of the water have proved to be inconclusive," Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells the NPR Newsdesk.

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