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 take a hot shower. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets mean 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 dark 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 Shop 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 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.
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 believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank, some of which 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.
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 liters, 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, and some of those who aren’t are leaving the region and staying with family and friends who have a water supply. Ballard said that includes one of his employees who 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 businesses owners to check their insurance policies to see if they can make claims over lost business. 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 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 canceled 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.
“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.
Several businesses that had arranged other sources of water were inspected Saturday. Gupta said health officials considered the closures’ impact on workers when they decided to allow businesses to reopen if they have potable water.
“This is not only the businesses but also the folks that work in those businesses,” he said.