1-14-14 After 5 days, water crisis nears end

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CHARLESTON — For the first time in more than four days, residents in parts of West Virginia’s capital city are using their tap water again.

The first four zones of West Virginia American Water Company customers, part of the areas in nine counties that have been under a do-not-use order since Thursday night, were cleared to begin a prescribed flushing process on Monday, according to media sources.

Questions lingered about how and why the leak occurred and whether the company, Freedom Industries, took too long to let officials know about the problem.

Tests over the weekend showed that levels of the licorice-smelling chemical used in coal processing were consistently below a toxic threshold, but tests were expected to continue Monday.

If tests continue to show the water is safe, the ban affecting the rural state’s capital region will be lifted in waves for specific areas, the first being in downtown Charleston, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.

“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told reporters.

The governor urged residents not to use the water for anything but flushing toilets. Some people have left town to take a shower and find an open restaurant. Water distribution centers have handed out bottled water.

So far, 10 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none was in serious condition, Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said.

About 7,500 gallons (28,400 liters) of the chemical is believed to have leaked from a tank and containment area, and some of it got into the Elk River and the water treatment plant downstream. The chemical quickly dissolves in water, so people have had to wait for it to pass through the water system or be diluted to the point where the water is again safe.

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.

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.

Essentially, Freedom Industries wasn’t under state oversight at all, said Michael Dorsey, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Homeland Security and Emergency Response office.

“There’s no question that they should have called earlier,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said.

The coal and chemical industries are major forces in the state’s economy, providing thousands of jobs. West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state in the U.S. and has about 150 chemical companies.

But the jobs also pose risks of spills and mine disasters.

Freedom Industries has said it removed the remaining chemical from the site, and the removal of other chemicals was ongoing.

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