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Water ban lifted for part of W.Va. after spill

Published: Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 12:00 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 1:45 p.m. CDT
Caption
Local residents lined up outside the Charleston Fire Department, Sunday morning, Jan. 12, 2014 to pick up bottled water in Charleston, W.Va. This is one of many locations handling distribution of bottled water as the ban on using tap water for drinking and washing continues following the chemical spill Thursday. (AP Photo Michael Switzer)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The ban on tap water for parts of West Virginia was lifted on Monday, ending a crisis for a fraction of the 300,000 people who were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after a chemical spill tainted the water supply.

It could still be several days before everyone is cleared to use water again, but officials were grateful to give the green light to about 6,000 to 10,000 customers. Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after restaurants and schools had to close because they didn't have any water, and people were told to use it only to flush their toilets.

"We are finally at a point where the 'do not use' order has been lifted," Tomblin said.

Officials were lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system was not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service problems. An online map detailing what areas were cleared showed a very small portion in blue and a vast area across nine counties still in the 'do not use' red.

Customers were asked to flush out their systems before using the water again, and the water company credited accounts with 1000 gallons. The average residential customer uses about 3,300 gallons per month.

Officials cautioned the water could still have a licorice-type odor, but they said it was safe.

"It's not going to bother me as long as we know it's clean," said Peter Triplett, a state library commission worker whose home was in the first area allowed to use water. "It's been rough going."

About 6,000 to 10,000 customers were cleared to use the water again Monday, and it could be days before the entire water system was cleared, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said.

The first area cleared was downtown Charleston, the state capital and its largest city. Most restaurants, day-care centers and schools there had closed during the emergency.

Schools Superintendent James Phares said he hoped the largest two school systems could reopen Tuesday, but cautioned: "We're not going to be rushing them back to school if it's not safe."

The water crisis started Thursday when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River.

Complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about the odor. The source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that spilled out of a 40,000 gallon tank.

State officials believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river and it's not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, opened an investigation into the spill.

Over the past few days, tests have showed that levels were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all. Officials were also keeping a close eye on water downstream to make sure there was no impact to aquatic life, wildlife or pets. No fish kills were reported.

Water distribution centers have handed out bottled water and trucks with large tanks of water have filled up containers for people to take home.

Some people put plastic bags around faucets so that they were reminded not to use the water. Others have left town to take a shower and find an open restaurant.

Only 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none were in serious condition.

The chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn't deadly. However, people were told they shouldn't even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Lawmakers were to return to the Capitol on Monday after Friday's session was cut short because there wasn't any water. Their work now will likely include a look at how Freedom Industries flew under the regulatory radar.

Freedom Industries' tanks don't fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility weren't considered hazardous enough to require environmental permitting, but there's already talk about changing that, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said. One idea is to require tanks to be a certain distance from the river, he said.

Company president Gary Southern held a brief news conference Friday night, but otherwise company officials have declined to comment.

"We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility," he said then.

The coal and chemical industries are major forces in the state's economy, providing thousands of jobs, but they also pose risks of spills and mine disasters. West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state, behind Wyoming, and the state has about 150 chemical companies. The area where the spill happened is known as Chemical Valley.

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Associated Press writers Pam Ramsey, Brendan Farrington and Mitch Weiss in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.

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