As over 300,000 people in West Virginia face a fourth day without water, state environmental officials are now estimating that as much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to process coal — Crude MCHM — may have spilled into the Elk River. That number is a substantial increase from early estimates of 2,000 to 5,000 gallons.
The chemical leak, first reported Thursday, was at a facility owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River, just 1.5 miles upstream from a major intake used by the largest water utility in the state, West Virginia American Water.
At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Company, said that it would likely still be “several days” before tap water in the nine counties affected would be safe for anything besides flushing toilets.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has set the standard of 1 part per million as a safe concentration of Crude MCHM in drinking water. Levels of the chemical must remain below this threshold for over 24 hours of testing before the water company can begin flushing the system.
At a press briefing Saturday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s (D) office released the first results of the now round-the-clock water sampling efforts. While some tests are coming in below the safe threshold, the system is still far from clean. Eight out of 18 recent test results tested above 1 part per million. Some of the earliest tests showed concentrations as high as 3 parts per million.
“The reason the numbers are going down is we believe less of the material is getting into the water,” said Mike Dorsey, the chief of homeland security and emergency response at the State Department of Environmental Protection. “We have cut of the source of the leak, the tank. There is still material under the concrete and the soil. We’ve taken aggressive measures on the shore line below the site.”
A team from the Chemical Safety Board will arrive in West Virginia on Monday to begin the long process of assessing the cause of the spill. The CSB is an independent federal agency with the authority to investigate industrial chemical accidents. The agency issues recommendations for prevention of future accidents.
To date, FEMA has brought in 1.4 million liters of water for residents. An additional 1.6 million liters are expected to come in over the course of the weekend.
The New York Times reported Saturday that at least 122 people have gone to local hospitals complaining of nausea, vomiting, and skin and eye irritation.