Up to 300,000 people in West Virginia have been stopped from drinking tap water, after a chemical spill in a river contaminated the water and forced schools, restaurants and bars to come to a standstill from Thursday morning.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties in West Virginia, following the spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, a chemical that is used in the coal industry, Reuters reported.
The mishap took place in the Elk River in Charleston, the capital and the largest city in West Virginia, near the largest water treatment plant of the state.
The water, at the moment, can only be used in toilets or for fighting fire. Authorities have ordered the closure of schools and restaurants across a wide area in the state.
"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Tomblin said in a statement. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools."
Local media showed pictures of residents queuing up in large numbers at stores for bottled water. Charleston Gazette reported that emergency workers were transporting water to the distribution centers in the affected counties.
The spill originated in Freedom Industries, a Charleston-based company, according to Laura Jordan, external affairs manager for West Virginia American Water. He said that the spill occurred above the intake of the Kanawha Valley water treatment plant in Charleston, which serves about 100,000 homes and business places, or about 300,000 people.
"It could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could potentially cause skin and eye irritation," Jordan said.