CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The fallout from a chemical leak Thursday into the Elk River continued to prevent about 300,000 West Virginians from drinking, cooking or washing with the water in their homes on Friday -- and company and government officials couldn't say when things might change.
The president of West Virginia American Water said he didn't know when the unprecedented "do not use" water advisory for eight counties and part of a ninth might be lifted. The president of Freedom Industries, where the chemical leak occurred, said he didn't know how much of the chemical had leaked into the Elk, about a mile and a half upriver from West Virginia American's water intakes.
"We don't know that the water is not safe, but I can't say that it is safe," West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre told reporters.
McIntyre said Friday morning that his company knows of no treatment to remove the chemical -- "Crude MCHM" -- from water supplies, and that crews would instead have to flush out the many miles of service lines -- a process he said there was no clear timetable for completing.
The water company might be able to remove the "do not use" order in a piecemeal fashion, but McIntyre said he didn't know how long that would take, either.
"I wish I could say a time," McIntyre said, "but I can't."
The "do not use" water advisory covers all West Virginia American customers in Boone, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties, and in the Culloden area of Cabell County. Customers were told not to use water for anything except flushing toilets and putting out fires.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin assured West Virginians that they would have enough bottled drinking water to get through the emergency, and condemned the company responsible for the chemical spill
"This discharge of pollutants is unacceptable," Tomblin said at a Friday afternoon news conference.
He said the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and the National Guard were working on a "long-term" plan to ensure that supplies of water and food remain available, if water remains contaminated for days. Distribution sites are open throughout the region.
"If you're low on water, don't panic, because help is on the way," Tomblin said. "We're taking every measure to provide water. There is no shortage of bottled water."
President Obama declared a federal disaster before 6 a.m. Friday, and announced that federal emergency aid would be made available to West Virginia.
FEMA spokesman Peter Herrick said the first 20 of an expected 75 tractor-trailers loaded with water provided by the relief agency were expected to arrive at West Virginia National Guard headquarters in Charleston at about 8:30 p.m. Friday. National Guard officials were to then send the water to distribution points.
Herrick said the rest of the trucks were expected to trickle in overnight.
Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston and Saint Francis Hospital in Charleston asked people not to come to the hospitals, except for "critical or urgent situations."
"But right now, we're not turning anyone away," said Paige Johnson, a spokeswoman for both hospitals.
The hospitals have stockpiled a two- to three-day supply of bottled water, she said.
Charleston Area Medical Center canceled elective surgeries for Friday, and staff members who don't work directly with patients were asked to stay home, spokesman Dale Witte said.
"We wanted to be able to have as much resources available to the patients, and those taking care of the patients, as possible," he said.
Three flights were canceled at Charleston's Yeager Airport on Friday, as well as one scheduled to depart early Saturday morning for Washington, D.C.
Labor contracts covering flight crewmembers making overnight stops require that such employees have access to showers and meals, among other necessities, according to Rick Atkinson, Yeager's executive director. "Not having usable water is not suitable for them," he said.
Airport and airline officials on Friday were working out a shuttle system to take flight crews to hotels in Barboursville, and then back to Charleston. As of late Friday, accommodations and shuttles had been lined up for all but one affected flight.
State government officials and the water company identified the chemical involved as "Crude MCHM," which is made up mostly of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol. A "material-safety data sheet," or MSDS, for the material warns that it could be harmful if swallowed and advises contacting a doctor or poison control officials if it's consumed. The chemical is used in coal processing.
"This is not a chemical that's typical to be in the water treatment process . . .," McIntyre said. "The West Virginia Bureau of Public Health is talking to the CDC, but I don't know what information they have at this point. But it is not intended to be in water."
McIntyre said he has consulted with an environmental protection lab in Denver and said it has safety standards only for the full-strength chemical, not for the chemical as a diluted product.
"We have no idea of the dilution," he said. "[They] didn't have anything to correlate."
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said late Friday he plans to ask the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to investigate the incident, and CSB officials said they were reviewing information about it and would make a deployment decision within 24 hours.