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SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jeff Kessler stayed calm in the middle of a busy four-lane road Friday afternoon next to a Chevy pickup with a sign that read “NO WATER RIGHT NOW.”
The South Charleston firefighter estimated that in 2½ hours, 1,000 drivers slowed and rolled down their windows to ask when they could get water from a filling center.
Sometimes before they even said a word, he held up his hand — all five fingers — to say the next supply would be ready at 5 p.m. Most people politely thanked him and drove on.
“I don’t have water,” one woman said, adding that she’s been looking everywhere for some since Thursday night.
A chemical leak Thursday in West Virginia’s capital and most populous city closed schools, offices, and businesses and left 300,000 people without drinking water. Federal authorities are investigating how the foaming agent, with its distinct licorice smell, escaped a chemical plant and leaked into the Elk River. While the chemical isn’t deadly, officials told residents not to drink the water, wash clothes, or bathe in it.
West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre said officials are working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” Mr. McIntyre said Friday.
The president of the company where the leak occurred said Friday evening it’s unclear how much of the material passed through a hole in the bottom of a steel tank, prompting state and federal disaster declarations and an order to not use the water in nine of the state’s counties.
Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern also said the company hasn’t determined how the hole formed but suggested the recent cold temperatures might have played a role. The company learned of the breach at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, he said, adding that they worked through the night to remove the chemical from the site. He said the chemical is of low toxicity and that it wouldn’t be harmful to fish or wildlife.
The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise, though officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of that was contained before escaping into the river, he said.
No more than six people went to emergency rooms with symptoms that may be linked to the chemical, but none was in serious or critical condition, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling said Friday afternoon.
South Charleston assistant fire Chief Virgil White, 43, said residents seemed calmer a day after the news broke.
“[Thursday] night was a melee,” he said. “It was mass hysteria — literally.”
Many drivers along MacCorkle Avenue near the distribution center seemed calm, even after learning a tanker expected at 3 p.m. wouldn’t be available for a few more hours. By 5 p.m., firefighters removed the sign from the truck bed and crews were filling containers with water from a tanker.
Officials also helped get water to the elderly.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin at a Friday news conference said there was no shortage of bottled water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also planned to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland, and several companies were sending bottled water and other supplies, including Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Co., the governor said.
“If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” he said.
Some southwestern Pennsylvania water haulers, including Al’s Water Service in Canton, Washington County, helped transport clean drinking water to affected areas. A Pennsylvania American Water Co. spokesman said 17 tankers from the region were en route Friday.
The leak affected big-box retailers, where customers cleared shelves of water and other supplies, and forced many small businesses from restaurants to nail salons to close.
Jeff Hamrick, Mr. Kessler’s cousin, closed his business, Reds Barber Shop, per an order from the West Virginia Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists. He estimated he was losing hundreds of dollars Friday, calling the business his “livelihood.” He tried to keep busy around the house Friday.
“That doesn’t do anything to help pay the bills,” Mr. Hamrick, 46, said. “It’s about the worst thing.”
Near the water distribution site at the Gestamp plant in South Charleston, one business remained open: Kelly’s Hot Spot, a video poker business where employee Shelley Hall, 35, said she’s had more than her usual crowd come in to play the machines, some finding it a refuge of sorts.
“We had to turn people away,” she said.
Elsewhere, though, frustration set in. By midafternoon Friday, seven civil lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Industries, or both it and the water company, some by local businesses, in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The Charleston Daily Mail reported that Freedom Industries contacted the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office after receiving a veiled threat by phone.
By Friday night, as some filling centers were scheduled to close, the licorice smell still lingered in the air.
Though he said it didn’t take his breath away, Mr. Kessler, 32, said: “It was so pungent [Thursday] you couldn’t stand it.”
Freedom Industries was ordered to stop storing chemicals in areas where they could flow into the containment dike that failed in Thursday’s leak, said Mr. Aluise.
The West Virginia National Guard has been running hourly tests on the chemical’s concentration since Thursday night. One part per million is considered a safe level; the level has dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million, said Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, adjutant general of West Virginia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Molly Born is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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