300,000 People in West Virginia Haven’t Been Able to Use Tap Water for Days

SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV - JANUARY 10: West Virginia American Water customers line up for water at the Gestamp Plant after waiting hours for a water truck, only to have it empited in about 20 minutes on January 10, 2014 in South Charleston, West Virginia. West Virginia American Water determined Thursday MCHM chemical had
Photo: Tom Hindman/2014 Getty Images

West Virginia capitol Charleston has been been effectively shut down since Thursday, when a toxic chemical contaminated the area’s water supply. According to state officials, about 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used to clean coal, leaked from a tank belonging to specialty chemicals company Freedom Industries into the Elk River and flowed into a nearby water treatment facility. West Virginia American Water soon began receiving complaints about “a licorice-type odor” coming from taps across nine counties, and locals were instructed to stop using the water “for much other than flushing toilets” until further notice.

The spill has affected 300,000 West Virginians, four of whom have been hospitalized with unspecified conditions after exposure to the poisoned water. (A total of 32 people have sought treatment.) On Saturday, almost every Charleston hotel and restaurant was closed, with many residents remaining in their homes or leaving the area for places with clean water. “It’s like a ghost town,” said a store owner whose business was open but “miserable” because of the emergency. “I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It’s sad.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has opened an investigation into the situation, and FEMA has so far delivered a million liters of clean water to the city. The authorities say it could still be “days” until the water is safe. Meanwhile, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has repeatedly warned his constituents that boiling their water will not make it useable. As the below video posted to YouTube by a Charleston resident demonstrates (h/t the Wire), putting the water near a flame is actually a particularly bad idea:

300,000 in West Virginia Can’t Use Tap Water