West Virginia has started to lift a ban against using water after testing showed reduced levels of a chemical that leaked into supplies five days ago forcing officials to tell 300,000 people not to drink from their taps.
The ban is being lifted in zones, starting with parts of Charleston, the capital, to help ensure the system isn’t overwhelmed by excessive demand that would cause more problems, according to a statement from West Virginia American Water on its website.
Residents were ordered Jan. 9 not to drink, cook or bathe with public water after about 7,500 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a tank near the Elk River, upstream of a treatment plant for the West Virginia division of American Water (AWK:US) Works Co.
Officials today said 90 percent of the tests at the water treatment plant intakes found levels of the chemical are below one part per million, which prompted the decision to begin lifting the ban in stages for eight counties near Charleston.
“The U.S. Center for Disease Controls and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency do not anticipate any health effects from these levels,” the company said.
Meanwhile, Booth Goodwin, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said that as the water crisis eases his office will vigorously investigate the cause.
“If our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable,” Goodwin said today in a statement. “Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again.”
A hotline has been set up for residents to see if they are in a zone that has been cleared for water use. The residents are being told to flush their water lines, including ice makers and other appliances, to make sure the tainted water has passed through, officials said.
The scene of the spill has been blocked off with booms to prevent further contamination of the Elk River, Mike Dorsey, head of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, told reporters in a briefing today in Charleston.
“To the best we can tell, the material is not leaching” into the river, he said. “Our focus right now is to maintain the status,” he said.
The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked out of a 35,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility. 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.
The leak was detected by neighbors who smelled a licorice-like odor beginning at 8:15 a.m. on Jan. 9. State officials ordered the tanks on the site emptied to prevent further spills.
Local restaurants such as Bluegrass Kitchen and chains and convenience stores were allowed to reopen after having to shutter because of the contamination. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department listed a dozen restaurants and more than 150 pharmacies, grocery stores and other food shops that were conditionally reopened as of yesterday at 12:30 p.m.
Businesses could apply to resume operating, a process that included a health department review of the company’s emergency potable water plans and site visit.
Bluegrass Kitchen, a Charleston farm-to-table restaurant that can seat about 90, closed the evening of Jan. 9 and reopened for lunch yesterday.
“It’s been detrimental,” said Keeley Steele, the restaurant’s owner. “That’s a huge chunk of money.”
The restaurant relied on five-gallon bottles of water it bought from local stores and is scheduled to receive additional supplies today, Steele said. Since employees can’t use the commercial dishwasher, Bluegrass Kitchen is also using a stash of disposable cutlery and glassware from its catering business.
The spill is one of the largest detected in years, and prompted President Barack Obama to declare an emergency in the affected counties. The federal government sent 1.4 million liters of water to the region, which was handed out by the National Guard and local churches and schools.
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