CHARLESTON, W.Va. – 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 neighbours. 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 cancelled. 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 odour 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.
Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, opened an investigation into Thursday’s spill.
By Saturday morning, FEMA said it had delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or a million litres, to West Virginia for distribution at sites including fire departments.
There’s no question businesses have been hurt — particularly restaurants and hotels, said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state’s largest regional chamber of commerce.
“I don’t know that it can be quantified at this point because we don’t know how long it will last,” Ballard said. “I’m hoping a solution by early next week so business can get back to normal.”
While restaurants are having the most trouble, the effect ripples to other businesses, Ballard said. When people go out to dinner, they also shop. And restaurant workers who miss paychecks aren’t spending as much money.
During the emergency, many people are just staying home, while others are leaving the region and staying with family and friends who have a water supply. Ballard said one of his own employees is staying in Ohio for the weekend.
“It’s smart, but it certainly has a negative impact on what would be a normal business weekend,” Ballard said.
The Alliance is urging business owners to check their insurance policies to see if they can make claims over lost sales. It plans to hold workshops to assist businesses with those issues, Ballard said.
In downtown, the store Taylor Books usually fills the 40 seats in its cafe. But the cafe was shut down by the state Department of Health on Friday because it said employees had no way to safely wash their hands before serving customers. On Saturday only three people sat in the bookstore using the wireless Internet. Manager Dan Carlisle said he cancelled a musician scheduled to play that night and the store was going to close five hours early.
“It’s pretty annoying,” Carlisle said about Freedom Industries’ response to the spill. “I feel like you should just be honest with people immediately.”
Some bars have remained open, but they’ve seen a large drop in business. State officials were working Saturday on alternative sources of water that may allow restaurants to reopen. Several businesses that had arranged other sources of water were inspected Saturday.
“We will work around the clock, 24-7, and try to open … as many businesses as possible in the next couple of days,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County boards of health.
Authorities’ efforts to provide water weren’t enough to quell some residents’ anger toward the company.
Patricia Mason, a retired 54-year-old teacher, searched all day Friday for bottled water, but didn’t find any until the next day. She was frustrated and blamed the company.
“It seems like no one watches these companies. They get away with this all the time, and we’re the ones who pay for it. We’re the ones who are suffering. It’s just wrong,” she said.
Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss and Pam Ramsey in Charleston contributed to this report