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Chemical spill a blow to W.Va. capital's economy

Sunday - 1/12/2014, 10:06am  ET

Dora Clark of Charleston, W.Va. stocks up on bottled water at a supermarket in Charleston, W.Va. on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 in the wake of Freedom Industries' chemical spill into the Elk River on Thursday. Customers were allowed to purchase up to four cases of water at a time. As many stores ran out, the West Virginia National Guard was sent to bring bottled water to local distribution centers. (AP Photo/Michael Switzer)

BRENDAN FARRINGTON
Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- On the third day without clean tap water, business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet aisles of merchandise around West Virginia's capital were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they'll take from a chemical spill.

Most visitors have cleared out of Charleston while locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find somewhere they can get a hot meal or a shower. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets mean that the spill is an emergency not just for the environment but also for local businesses.

A water company executive said Saturday that it could be days before uncontaminated water is flowing again for about 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. The uncertainty means it's impossible to estimate the economic impact of the spill yet, said the leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Virtually every restaurant was closed Saturday, unable to use water to prepare food, wash dishes or clean employees' hands. Meanwhile, hotels had emptied and foot traffic was down at many retail stores.

"I haven't been able to cook anything at home and was hoping they were open," Bill Rogers, 52, said outside a closed Tudor's Biscuit World in Marmet, just east of Charleston. "It seems like every place is closed. It's frustrating. Really frustrating."

In downtown Charleston, the Capitol Street row of restaurants and bars were locked up. Amid them, The Consignment Company was open, but business was miserable. The second-hand shop's owner said she relies on customers who come downtown to eat and drink.

"It's like a ghost town," Tammy Krepshaw said. "I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It's sad."

The person she doesn't feel bad for is Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, who told reporters the day before that he was having a long day and quickly wrapped up a news conference on the chemical spill so he could fly out of the area.

"People want answers. They deserve answers," Krepshaw said.

At Charleston's Yeager Airport, a combined 7 inbound and outbound flights were canceled. The reason for the cancellations was an agreement between the airlines and unions for flight crews and pilots that hotels meet a certain threshold of service, and the lack of water violates the agreement, said airport spokesman Brian Belcher. Arrangements were being made to house flight personnel in hotels about 40 miles away.

The emergency began Thursday, when complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odor in the tap water. The source: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that leaked out of a 40,000 gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River. State officials said Saturday they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank -- boosting their estimate by more than 2,000 gallons from previous days. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river; it's not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

It could take days for clean tap water to flow again. First, water sample test results must consistently show that the chemical's presence in the public water system is at or below 1 parts per million, the level recommended by federal agencies, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said Saturday at a news conference.

West Virginia National guard officials said they need a 24-hour period where samples at the water treatment facility are below 1 part per million. Many samples are meeting the mark, but outliers are still hitting slightly above 1 part per million.

After they achieve that goal, West Virginia American Water Company can start sampling across the nine-county region and flushing the system. That process would take days, said company president Jeff McIntyre.

A rainy morning also might have helped speed along the water cleansing, said Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, Adjutant General of West Virginia.

According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn't produce them.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he will work with his environmental agency head to look into tighter regulation of chemical storage facilities in the ongoing legislative session.

"There are certain reporting things that companies have to do," Tomblin said. "And I do think we have to look at them to make sure this kind of incident does not happen again."

Thirty-two people sought treatment at area hospitals for symptoms such as nausea. Of those, four people were admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center but their conditions weren't available Saturday.

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