Huge West Virginia chemical spill hits long-term care facilities

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Long-term care facilities in nine West Virginia counties were in emergency response mode Friday, after a huge chemical spill created a federally declared disaster and rendered tap water unusable.

The incident started Thursday, when a tank at Freedom Industries Inc. in Charleston began to leak a chemical into the Elk River. The U.S. Attorney's office has said it will launch an investigation into the cause of the spill.

Freedom makes products for the mining and water treatment industries, and the chemical involved — 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol — is used to process coal.

Because exposure to the chemical could sicken and possibly kill people, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) instructed people in the area not to use tap water for anything except flushing toilets. About 300,000 people were affected.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other responders began to move fresh water into the contamination zone Friday. Hospitals and nursing homes were the “main focus” of relief efforts, Tomblin said.

The emergency response agencies were doing a good job as of Friday afternoon, according to Candy Sanchez, administrator at the 184-bed Eastbrook Center in Charleston.

“At our facility, the local government agencies have been wonderful and we have plenty of water,” Sanchez told McKnight's.

No injuries related to the chemical had been reported as of Friday.

Chemical spills were one of several potential disasters addressed in a recent proposed rule from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which would create more comprehensive disaster preparedness guidelines for long-term care facilities.

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