West Virginia chemical spill cuts water for up to 300,000 people

Spill prompts a water ban in nine counties
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A growing number of residents in West Virginia are being instructed to avoid using water following a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston that has prompted a state of emergency in nine counties and could affect as many as 300,000 people.

West Virginia American Water expanded its advisory last night. It posted a warning on its Facebook account that said: "West Virginia American Water has issued a DO NOT USE WATER NOTICE for all West Virginia American Water customers in Kanawha, Boone, Putnam, Lincoln, Logan, Clay, Roane and Jackson counties."

The company's do-not-use advisory now also includes Cabell County. 

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency, telling affected residents in those areas not to drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes in the water and to only use it for flushing or for extinguishing fires.

"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged NOT to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Gov. Tomblin said in a statement. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes, and schools."

Mr Tomblin said his office was working with the National Guard and the state's Office of Emergency Services to provide water and supplies through county emergency services offices as quickly as possible.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health Departments, ordered closed all restaurants, body art parlors and schools that receive water from the West Virginia American Water company.

Schools would be closed on Friday across many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas, and Putnam, the West Virginia Department of Education said on its website.

The spill originated with Freedom Industries, a Charleston company, according to Laura Jordan, external affairs manager for West Virginia American Water.

It occurred directly above the intake of the Kanawha Valley water treatment plant in Charleston - the largest in West Virginia - and affects 100,000 homes and businesses, or 250,000 to 300,000 people, Ms Jordan said.

"It could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could potentially cause skin and eye irritation," Ms Jordan explained, adding that the water company and state environmental officials were conducting tests on the water.

The company is working with state and federal authorities to provide residents access to bottled water, and water distribution sites will be announced through local media, she added.

There have been reports of stores already selling out of bottled water, with many sharing pictures on social media of empty shelves in shops.

There have been no immediate reports of illnesses from the spill.

State department of education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro says schools in at least five of the counties will be closed today.

Additional reporting by agencies