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Greater Cincinnati Water Works assesses local risk after West Virginia chemical spill

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CINCINNATI -- A chemical spill into a river in West Virginia has raised concern that it could affect the local water supply.

On Thursday morning, contents leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area, causing various chemicals to spill into the Elk River in Charleston. Much of the West Virginia state capital and surrounding areas are shut down while experts determine the extent of the damage and possible risks.

Even though the spill was 200 miles from the Tri-State, local water officials are on alert.

"What we're in the process of doing now is learning as much as we can about this particular chemical, and it's impact to our water supply," said Michelle Ralston, a spokesperson for Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW).

Some of the contents spilled into the water contained a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process.

Officials in both West Virginia and Ohio say they’re taking precautions because they are still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents.

"I don't know if the water is not safe," a West Virginia water company president Jeff McIntyre said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can't say how long this (advisory) will last at this time."

While McIntyre told the AP the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form, it is potentially hazardous.

The chemical is harmful if swallowed - and could be so if inhaled - and causes eye and skin irritation, according to information from Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company that provides products and services for scientific research.

No more than six people have been brought into emergency rooms with symptoms that may stem from the chemical, and none were in serious or critical condition, State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling told the Associated Press.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has classified the Ohio River as highly susceptible to contamination, as with all surface waters, according to the GCWW website. This is because it is open to the environment, and pollution may spread quickly with the flow of the river.

Ralston said the extent of the local contamination, if any, will depend on several variables including how much rain or snow melt pours into the River.

Although the risk level is still being assessed, Greater Cincinnati Water Works and ORSANCO have a battery of monitoring stations between West Virginia and the Queen City.

GCWW has several barriers between potential pollution and your tap water. The first barrier, a source water protection program, is designed to prevent and monitor contamination in the river.

"It detects for abnormalities in the make up of the Ohio River, so that if there is a spill, it can detect that spill and then notify water utilities downstream," Ralston said of the monitoring stations.

Once the water reaches a plant, it goes through several layers of cleansing including sand and carbon filtration and even ultraviolet light. 

GCWW also has several options to protect the drinking water, ranging from turning off the intake and using stored water until pollution passes, to altering a treatment process to remove contamination, according to its website.

At each step of the process, the water is again checked to make sure there's nothing in it that doesn't belong, Ralston said.

"We want to assure everyone that our water is safe," she said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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