CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - Restaurants and shops began reopening on Sunday in parts of West Virginia where the water supply was poisoned by a chemical spill, although up to 300,000 people spent a fourth day unable to use tap water for anything besides flushing toilets.
State government officials, the utility company West Virginia American Water and the National Guard continued to test the water supply after as much as 7,500 gallons (28,000 liters) of an industrial chemical leaked into the Elk River on Thursday.
It could still be several days before people in nine counties and Charleston, the state capital and largest city, can once again use the water from their faucets for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Earl Ray Tomblin, the governor of West Virginia, and other officials said at a press conference on Sunday that efforts to flush the chemical from the water supply were showing signs of progress, and that most water samples were found to be within safety limits for a second day.
But they did not specify when the drinking water ban might be lifted, instead saying they were working to create a website where residents will be able to check to see when the restriction is lifted in their area.
“Our team has been diligently testing samples from throughout the affected area, and the numbers look good,” Tomblin said. “I believe we’re at a point where we see light at the end of the tunnel.”
A dozen restaurants in Charleston had been allowed to reopen by Sunday afternoon by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department after assuring officials that they have secured a source of potable water.
“It feels very expensive,” said Keeley Steele, who bought hundreds of bottles of water in order to reopen her comfort-food restaurant, the Bluegrass Kitchen, in Charleston on Sunday. “This is all coming at such a huge cost.”
Hotels were allowed to continue operating as long as they steer clear of using tap water, although several hotel owners said they were only honoring existing reservations to reduce the expense of shipping out linens for cleaning.
Officials have so far declined to estimate the economic cost of the spill.
Frustrations, however, continue to mount, with West Virginians lamenting the toll the outage has taken on their health and personal hygiene.
“It feels like we’ve all been living on junk food these past couple days,” Josephine Ritter, a 40-year-old hairstylist, said outside a recently reopened 7-Eleven convenience store in Charleston. “You can’t cook or clean or anything. It’s just bottled water and potato chips every day.”
The emergency began last week after a spillage from a tank belonging to Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that makes chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, authorities said.
The spill happened about a mile upriver from a West Virginia American Water treatment plant. President Barack Obama declared it an emergency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent dozens of tractor trailers loaded with clean water.
Water tainted by the spilled 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, smells faintly of licorice. Contact with the water can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin. Around 70 people had visited emergency rooms with these symptoms by Sunday, said Karen Bowling, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Some 1,045 people have called the West Virginia Poison Center since the spill to say they or someone in their household had been exposed, she said.
The “vast majority” of those people reported symptoms of some kind, said Elizabeth Scharman, the poison center’s director. While there is little data on the chemical’s effect on humans, she said most symptoms were easily treated and that rashes and feelings of nausea would soon fade.
“It’s not a highly toxic chemical, it’s an irritant chemical,” she said, adding that less than 10 people had had to be admitted to a hospital. More than 60 people had also called to say their livestock or pets had been exposed.
Meanwhile, some West Virginians are anticipating a disheveled start to the new work week.
“I’m not looking forward to going back to work on Monday without a shave or shower,” said Clark Mills, a 51-year-old contractor in Charleston. He has sent his family to stay with relatives in an unaffected part of the state while he waits out the problem.
“I have a 6-month-old baby,” he said. “We can’t live like this.”
Reporting by Ann Moore and Jonathan Kaminsky; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh