Crisis In West Virginia: Wal-Mart Calls In Police To Guard Bottled Water Delivery

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Residents of South Charleston, W.Va., wait in line at Kroger to buy water following a chemical spill on the Elk River that compromised the public water supply of eight counties on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

The Federal Emergency Management Authority has confirmed that it will deliver more than 1 million liters (264,172 gallons) of clean water to residents of the nine counties in West Virginia after a chemical used by the coal industry spilled into the Elk River on Thursday.

Approximately 300,000 people in West Virginia were told not to drink or use their water after approximately 5,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) — a chemical used to wash coal of impurities — spilled from a tank owned by Freedom Industries. West Virginia American Water Company president Jeff McIntyre warned consumers not to use tap water for baby formula, brushing teeth, or showering. “Toilet flushing only,” he said.

The reports sent people rushing to stock up on bottled water, stripping store shelves around the area, including local Wal-Marts. Tension over the availability of clean water in the area seemed to be growing. At around 3:00pm, the Kanawha County police scanner lit up with reports of a shipment of water that was about to come in to a nearby Wal-Mart, asking for police presence while employees could restock.

“It was chaos, that’s what it was,” convenience store cashier Danny Cardwell told

Local officials have described MCHM as smelling like licorice and looking like “cooking oil floating on top of the water.” The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said symptoms of MCHM exposure include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

Though the spill occurred Thursday morning, West Virginia American Water didn’t provide its customers with a warning until evening and, as Al Jazeera reported, several were angered by the lack of information, particularly regarding what should be done if they had already used or ingested the water.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General James Hoyer said the amount of MCHM in the water was becoming more diluted.

“There has been a reduction in the concentration in the water from two parts per million to 1.7 parts per million,” Hoyer said. “The CDC says one part per million would be an acceptable level. Point-one would be the level there they would not notice any smell or taste difference.”