CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia’s capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.
Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River.
Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.
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, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said.
“We don’t know that the water’s not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe,” McIntyre said Friday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.
Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly.
However, people across nine counties were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.
The spill brought West Virginia’s most populous city and nearby areas to a virtual standstill, closing schools and offices and even forcing the state legislature to cancel its business for the day.
Officials focused on getting water to people who needed it, particularly the elderly and disabled.