West Virginia residents hunt for safe water

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Federal authorities were continuing to investigate Friday evening how a foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and flowed into the Elk River, prompting water safety concerns for hundreds of thousands in and around the city.

The president of the company where the leak occurred said Friday evening he isn't sure how much of the material passed through a hole in 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.

AP video: West Virginia residents deal with chemical spill

AP video: West Virginia residents deal with chemical spill

The late-afternoon briefing at the site -- where the chemical's signature licorice scent still hung in the air -- provided few answers to the thousands of people who have lined up at distribution sites around the area to fill containers of useable water.

Some southwestern Pennsylvania water haulers have helped transport clean drinking water to affected areas.

A Pennsylvania American Water Co. spokesman said 17 tankers from the region were en route today.

Residents were out and about in Charleston on Friday morning stocking up on emergency water supplies in preparation for what could be a long wait for safe tap water.

Traffic backed up in both directions near the South Charleston Recreation Center on Jefferson Street as people rushed to pick up bottled water. The South Charleston Fire Department rationed water to one case per vehicle.

Bobby Cohernour, chief of the South Charleston Fire Department, said about half of the 1,200 cases of water from a tractor trailer had been distributed within an hour.

"We've had a steady stream of people coming through," Cohernour said. "It really hasn't been that bad, it's just been a steady stream of people coming through."

Jim Browder, 85, and June Hyer, 84, were able to secure their case of water at the South Charleston Recreation Center, but had trouble finding food because many restaurants served by West Virginia American Water in the Kanawha Valley are shut down.

"It's been tough," Browder said. "We left the house without anything to eat, and we went to Bob Evans to get some hot cakes and Bob Evans was closed, and so was McDonald's, and so was every other place. It's a tough situation, and it could get tougher."

John Bell, 71, a businessman from Charleston, was frustrated as he waited in line for his water ration. He said he was unhappy with the manner in which residents were notified of the contamination, and the problem is affecting his business.

"I'm upset that this state knew about the problem and our governor and the water company waited until five o'clock after we took our baths, brushed our teeth and took our medication to notify us," Bell said.

He said he tried for two to three hours to purchase water Thursday evening after he found out about the chemical leak, to no avail. Business from eastern Kentucky to as far north as Marietta, Ohio had their bottled water supplies quickly cleaned out, according to social media reports.

"I've run everywhere, and you couldn't find water anywhere," Bell said. "Staples, Sam's, Walmart, Target, even the BP stations. Exxon, they were all out of water."

Customers were flowing out of the Kroger on Route 119 near Charleston Tuesday morning with soda, snacks and other disposable supplies, but the store was out of water; a store representative didn't know when more water would arrive.

Diana Gillespie of Nitro was able to get her supplies from Kroger and water from a Tyler Mountain Water truck she flagged down Friday morning, but thinks the driver overcharged for the bottled water.

"I found a Tyler Mountain water truck, but the only thing about this is they charged me $7.50 for a 24-pack," Gillespie said.

Post-Gazette staff writer Molly Born contributed to this report from Charleston.

First Published January 10, 2014 12:02 PM

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