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Water ban lifted for part of West Virginia after spill

 

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.

Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets.

"The numbers we have today look good and we are finally at a point where the `do not use' order has been lifted," he 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. Customers were asked to flush out their systems before using the water again. Officials cautioned the water could still have an odor, but they said it was safe.

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

"It's a complex system," he said.

The first area allowed to use water was downtown Charleston, the state capital and its largest city. Restaurants, day-care centers and schools there have 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 a licorice-type odor in tap water. The source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that spilled out of a 40,000 gallon tank. State officials said they 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.

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 is no further impact. No fish kills or other impact on aquatic life, wildlife or pets have been reported.

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.

Water distribution centers have handed out bottled water and trucks with large tanks of water have filled up containers for people to take home. 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, and one idea is to require tanks to be a certain distance from the river, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said.

There were also signs Freedom Industries did not respond appropriately. A state law requires immediate reporting, but Huffman said state environmental workers were on the spill site at 11:15 a.m. Thursday because of a call from the water company -- not Freedom Industries.

Freedom officials were at the spill site when state officials arrived, yet they still did not actually report the spill until nearly an hour later.

"There's no question that they should have called earlier," Huffman said.

The company has said it removed the remaining chemical from the site and took it elsewhere, and the removal of other chemicals was ongoing. 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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