(Updates with calls to poison center)
By Ann Moore
CHARLESTON, W. Va., Jan 10 (Reuters) - Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents are spending a second night unable to bathe, shower or drink tap water Friday after a chemical spill into the Elk River called the water's safety into question.
"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 Co, told a news conference. The company runs the state's largest water treatment plant.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday. The spill forced the closure of schools and businesses in Charleston, the state's capital and largest city.
Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he could not say when it would be declared safe for normal use.
The spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water.
The spill came from a tank belonging to Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries.
Water carrying this chemical has an odor like licorice or anise, McIntyre said. While the chemical is not highly lethal, the level that could be considered safe has yet to be quantified, he said.
A water company spokeswoman said the chemical could be harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.
By Friday evening, 737 people had called the West Virginia Poison Center to report concerns or symptoms related to the spill, according to Director Elizabeth Scharman.
Those with symptoms reported nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and/or reddened skin - "varying from very mild to much more bothersome," Scharman said.
Scharman said that the center knows of 70 people who have been seen by an emergency room doctor, though only a handful have been admitted to hospitals.
UP TO 5,000 GALLONS LEAKED
The governor said in an interview with CNN that there were several thousand gallons of the chemical at the plant, and it is estimated that at most about 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) leaked out.
"The old tank has been emptied and taken away and as of right now the company is closed down," Tomblin said. The Department of Environmental Protection issued a "cease operations" order against the facility.
The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the site, where they found a leaking tank, a spokeswoman for Governor Tomblin said.
Tomblin said in a CNN interview that when government officials arrived at the scene, "They had had to convince them they needed to get in to take care of this problem."
According to a Friday letter from the state Department of Environmental Protection to Freedom Industries, upon arriving at the facility, government officials "discovered that no spill containment measures had been initiated and that an accumulating MCHM leak pool was seeping thru a dike wall adjacent to the Elk River and a downriver oil sheen was observed."
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said the company was still determining how much Crude MCHM had been released. He said the company has been working with local and federal authorities, and apologized at a press conference in Charleston.
"Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everybody's daily life that this incident has caused," Southern said.
Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to centers around the affected area. Residents formed long lines at stores and quickly depleted inventories of bottled water.
"It's just ridiculous," said Jaime Cook of Charleston, who was buying one of the last jugs of water at a Walmart store. "There's nowhere to buy water and everywhere seems to be sold out. This isn't going to last two days."
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.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory on Friday waived size and weight restrictions for trucks to expedite delivery of water, equipment and supplies to West Virginia to help them recover. (Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)