Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged water customers in the southwest counties of Kanawha, Putnam, Jackson, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Boone counties, as well as customers in the area of Culloden in Cabell County, to stop using water for everything but flushing toilets and fighting fires.
"Do not drink it. Do not cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it," Tomblin warned. "For safety, we would ask everyone -- this includes restaurants, hospitals, any institutions out there -- please do not use any tap water if you're a customer of West Virginia American Water."
The spill prompted President Obama to issue a state of emergency for the state and retailers to quickly sell out of bottled water. Truckloads of water were being sent in from Maryland by the National Guard. Wal-Mart said it would also provide several truckloads of water.
It's unclear how much of the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), was spilled and how much of a hazard it poses. Booth Goodwin, the U.S. Attorney for West Virginia, said his office and other agencies will investigate the cause of the spill.
State health officials say MCHM could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation. But Jeff McIntyre, president of the West Virginia American Water Company, says so far, water tests to determine how much MCHM is in the water have been inconclusive.
"There is material present. We don't know how to quantify it,'' McIntyre said. A National Guard mobile lab will conduct sampling, he said.
The spill occurred Thursday when MCHM, used to wash coal of impurities, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area, then poured into the Elk River and a nearby treatment plant.
Officials from Freedom, which makes chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, said they were working with local and federal officials and are following "all necessary steps to fix the issue."
The state Department of Environmental Protection's air-quality officials discovered the spill -- which the company had not reported, the Charleston Gazette reported. An EPA spokesman said the Freedom Industries tank that held the MCHM has a capacity of up to 40,000 gallons. "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped," said department spokesman Tom Aluise. "A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained."
But Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said the company is still trying to determine how much MCHM had been released into the river.
As a licorice-like smell enveloped the capital, stores, restaurants schools and even the state legislature shut down. Schools were also closed in five counties.
The emergency triggered a run on stores selling bottled water, including a Sam's Club that sold its 4,200 cases of water in an hour and a half, The Charleston Daily Mail reported. Store employees said they were unable to find any more water at stores in a 20-mile radius.
The sheriff's office in Kanawha county reported receiving about a dozen 911 calls after scuffles broke out over rapidly dwindling supplies. the Gazette reported. Police were asked to step up patrols around convenience stores.