(Updates with water company news conference, quotes, changes byline)
By Ann Moore
CHARLESTON, W. Va., Jan 10 (Reuters) - Up to 300,000 residents in West Virginia were left without tap water on Friday after a chemical spill that forced the closure of schools and business in the state capital and led the federal government to declare a disaster.
Health officials advised residents to use tap water only for flushing toilets and fighting fires and the company that runs the state's largest water treatment plant said it was unable to predict when the water would be safe again to drink.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday.
The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia's capital and largest city, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water Co.
"We don't know that the water's not safe, but I can't say it is safe," Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, told a televised news conference.
Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he could offer no timeline for when water would be declared safe for normal use.
The chemical is not highly lethal, but since the company does not regularly see it as a contaminant, the level that could be considered safe has yet to be quantified, he added.
Water carrying 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol has an odor like licorice or anise, he said. A company spokeswoman said the chemical could be harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.
McIntyre said the spill originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries. A company spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to centers around the affected area. Local residents formed long lines at stores as shelves of bottled water quickly emptied.
"It's just ridiculous. There's nowhere to buy water and everywhere seems to be sold out. This isn't going to last two days," said Jaime Cook of Charleston, who was buying one of the last jugs of water at a Walmart store.
Tina May, a Charleston resident, even considered heading out of town for the weekend.
"I'm not sure how long I can last without a shower. This is unbearable," she said.
The Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health Departments ordered the closure of all restaurants and schools receiving water from the West Virginia American Water company.
Schools also were shut across many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and Putnam.
The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection got a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries site, where they found a leaking storage unit, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tomblin said. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, Mary Wisniewski in Chicago and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Eric Walsh and Stephen Powell)
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