By Ian Simpson
Jan 13 West Virginia officials on Monday lifted
a ban on drinking or bathing with tap water in some areas of the
state hit by a chemical spill that affected hundreds of
thousands of people for five days, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin
Consumers in cleared areas should flush out their systems
before using the water, which had been barred for use except for
toilets since the chemical discharge into the Elk River on
Thursday, he told a news conference.
"The numbers we have look good, and we are finally at a
point where the do-not-use order has been lifted in certain
areas," Tomblin said.
Officials had ordered some 300,000 people not to drink their
tap water after as much as 7,500 gallons (28,000 liters) of the
4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, leaked into the
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co
, said the first area cleared for use was in downtown
Charleston, the state capital. Priority was being given to areas
with major hospitals.
Later in the day, people and businesses in the area around
Kanawha City were given clearance to begin flushing water
through their plumbing systems, a precursor to being allowed to
actually use it.
It could be several days before the entire system with its
hundreds of miles (kms) of pipe is safe to use, McIntyre said at
the news conference.
The crude MCHM chemical, which is used in coal processing,
leaked into the river from a tank at a Freedom Industries site
about a mile (1.6 kilometers) upriver from an American Water
treatment plant, the biggest in the state.
Tomblin declared a state of emergency in nine counties,
including Charleston, shutting down schools and businesses.
Freedom Industries, which makes specialty chemicals for the
cement, mining and steel industries, has apologized for the
As of Monday morning, 18 lawsuits had been filed in the
Kanawha County court against Freedom Industries and the water
company by business owners and individuals who say they lost
wages or were injured, according to the court clerk.
SMELLS LIKE LICORICE
U.S. President Barack Obama declared the spill an emergency,
and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent dozens of
tractor trailers loaded with clean water.
The water cutoff forced hundreds of thousands of people to
use only bottled water and forego cleaning for days.
Water tainted by crude MCHM smells faintly of licorice.
Contact with the water can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness,
diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin.
A total of 231 people had visited emergency rooms with
symptoms, and 14 had been admitted, said Karen Bowling, the
state Department of Health and Human Resources secretary.
None was in critical condition, she said.
State School Superintendent James Phares said some schools
may be able to open on Tuesday as water systems were cleaned
Health officials were monitoring water quality downstream
from the spill on the Elk, Kanawha and Ohio rivers. McIntyre
said tests at his company's Huntington, West Virginia, plant
showed presence of the crude MCHM at levels far below the 1 part
per million level safety standard set by the federal Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the U.S. attorney for the
Southern District of West Virginia are investigating the spill.
Officials at the news conference said they were considering
state regulations to lessen the impact of a spill, including
setbacks of chemical sites from vulnerable areas.
In Washington, Representatives Henry Waxman of California,
the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee,
and Paul Tonko of New York, the top Democrat on the panel's
environment subcommittee, urged Republican Committee Chairman
John Shimkus of Illinois to hold a hearing to explore
"regulatory gaps" exposed by the spill.