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West Virginia chemical spill contaminates water in 9 counties

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(CNN) — Nine counties in West Virginia are under a state of emergency after a chemical spill into the Elk River contaminated the drinking water for some 200,000 people.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued the state of emergency Thursday evening, which was followed a few hours later by an emergency declaration from the White House.

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

News of the contaminated water supply sent shock waves through the region.

“The emergency rooms became packed once the order came out. People had been drinking and bathing in this stuff,” said Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission. “Then there was a run on water at every Walmart and convenience store in the county.”

Efforts are under way to provide alternative sources.

“I’ve been working with our National Guard and Office of Emergency Services in an effort to provide water and supplies through the county emergency services offices as quickly as possible,” Tomblin said.

The declaration affects West Virginia American Water Co. customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam,and Roane counties.

The company said on its Facebook page that a chemical spill occurred along the Elk River, causing contamination within the Kanawha Valley water system.

The chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is not toxic but is harmful if swallowed, according to Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. It is used to wash coal before it goes to market.

The leak came from a 48,000 gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water Co. facility, officials said. It’s uncertain how much of the chemical leaked.

A toxicologist with Freedom Industries told the water company that there is “some health risk” with this chemical, according to Laura Jordan of West Virginia American Water.

“The safety sheet indicated there could be some skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that’s at full strength of the chemical,” Jordan said. “The chemical was diluted in the river.”

The do-not-drink advisory was issued as a precaution.

Officials weren’t sure when the pipes would be cleared and the water safe to drink again. There’s lots of plumbing in the nine-county area.

“You’ve got 60 miles of this system and it’s full of this water,” said Carper. “And people aren’t using the water.”

CNN’s Marlena Baldacci, Kevin Conlon and Dave Alsup contributed to this report