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After 5 days, W.Va.'s water crisis nears its end

Officials: West Virginia Water Crisis Near End

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- For the fifth straight day, hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia had to wash, cook and brush their teeth with bottled water, but officials promised the ban on tap water that was tainted by a chemical spill would soon be lifted.

Over the weekend, tests showed levels of the licorice-smelling chemical used in coal processing were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all. As the tests were expected to continue Monday, there were still questions about how and why the leak occurred and whether the company, Freedom Industries, took too long to let state officials know about the problem.

If tests continue to show the water is safe, the ban affecting about 300,000 people across a nine-county region will be lifted in waves for specific areas, the first of which would be in downtown Charleston, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre. He gave no timetable for when people could start using the water again.

"I can tell you at this point, I don't believe we're several days from starting to lift (the ban), but I'm not saying today," McIntyre said at a news conference Sunday.

"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 put plastic bags around faucets so that they will be reminded not to use the water while 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. So far, only 10 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none were in serious condition, Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said.

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.

Other than schools, day-care centers, hotels and many restaurants that will be closed Monday, the region was open for business, but foot traffic was slow. Stores and offices adjusted by providing bottled water and hand sanitizer. The governor said state government offices would be open Monday.

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. 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.

A leak in one of the company's 40,000 tanks containing the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is what caused the disruption in water service.

"In my world - I'm a hazmat guy - this stuff's below my radar screen until this happens," said Dorsey. "The tanks themselves, we don't have the regulatory authority to inspect those tanks."

There's already talk about changing that, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said.

"We are working on some ideas right now," Huffman said. "I think a lot of folks will be calling for legislation and rightly so."

And there are signs that 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.

State officials started investigating when people complained about an odor coming from near the company's river terminal.

Freedom officials were also 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.

About 7,500 gallons of the chemical is believed to have leaked from the tank and a containment area and some of it got into the Elk River and the water treatment plant, which is about a mile downstream from Freedom Industries. The chemical quickly dissolves in water, meaning it can't be filtered out or skimmed from 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.

Online maps and automated phone calls will let water customers know when their areas have been cleared. Residents will also be instructed on how to flush their homes of any contaminated water.

About 170 people were treated and released from emergency rooms for exposure. There were 1,045 calls to a poison control center about human exposure and 65 animal-related calls, officials said.


Associated Press writers Pam Ramsey and Mitch Weiss in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
nuyugirl January 13 2014 at 8:11 AM

in a poverty stricken area, small businesses can go bankrupt over a few days of unexpected shutdown. Businesses like hair salons, barber shops, restaurants, b&b's or motels run by families or individuals are often unprepared for such an emergency and have no way to recoup the loss. There has also been no mention of the ecological impact - how will the chemical affect fish and water fowl? And no one yet knows if anyone has died from this. How many elderly were unable to go out to get water or how many mentally impaired may have used it anyway? It will be quite some time before the true costs of the chemical spill are known.

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1 reply
acatwv nuyugirl January 13 2014 at 8:38 AM

MANY people have had to resort to using the water even knowing it was unwise or unsafe for lack of any alternative.

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1 reply
ggblank1603 acatwv January 13 2014 at 8:54 AM

Name 3

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maureen January 13 2014 at 8:34 AM

And next problem.....What to do with all those plastic bottles. Ugh!

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2 replies
BOB maureen January 13 2014 at 9:17 AM

Glue them together and make a plastic bottle kayak


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drpmindmender maureen January 13 2014 at 9:31 AM

How about recycling them?

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wva76 January 13 2014 at 8:36 AM


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1 reply
Elizabeth wva76 January 13 2014 at 8:41 AM

One can only hope (probably in vain) that the company responsible will be picking up ALL the costs involved, including the supplies of bottled water.

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LISA225412 January 13 2014 at 12:41 PM

God Bless all West Virginians that are going through this water problem... Thank you for the WVA Governor and his staff and others who are working very hard on the water situation. There are still other West Virginians thinking the problem will be heading their direction. I live in one of these areas in WVA. But with God's Help. We will survive this water situation. I hope the Governor will press charges on the Chemical company for this mess that they made. The Chemical company should refund the West Virginians that didn't have water at their home for at least 2 years in full payment for their punishment for starts. But the Governor should, also, punishment them with a strong and huge fine before the Federal Goverment gets to them on their fines. This will tell all Chemical Plants don't mess with our WVA state government and the people of West Virginia. Once again, GOD BLESS WEST VIRIGINANS!!!

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cardiacbuzz January 13 2014 at 9:15 AM

....and if, for instance in the future the proposed Keystone pipeline were to break?

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drpmindmender January 13 2014 at 9:30 AM

So Freedom Industries has FORTY THOUSAND TANKS containing the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol which caused the disruption in water service to 300,000 people in and around Charleston. WV. ONE tank out of 40,000 leaked. Does this mean that Freedom Industries properly maintains their storage tanks 99.9975% of the time, or are there simply FORTY THOUSAND MORE DISASTERS waiting to happen?

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1 reply
PHILL AND TRISHA drpmindmender January 13 2014 at 9:38 AM

well..the good news is..."those big corporations are being allowed to police themselves!"..isn't that conforting!

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bhol11223 January 13 2014 at 9:32 AM

Not only is my water bad like everyone else then on Sat afternoon my phone line goes out for who knows what reason. and where i live on Woodward Dr just outside the City Limits i dont get cell service, so iam really screwed. Called Fronteir and they said maybe today they will get to me , I wonder what they would say if i told them well maybe i'll get around to paying my bill when it comes in !! lol But untill then just haft to do the best we can .!! and like the country song say I can skin a buck i can run a trout line cause a country boy can servive !!! Everyone have a BLESSED DAY

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dee lightner January 13 2014 at 9:36 AM

What about those downn river from the location of the spill? The chemicals had to go SOMEWHERE.

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Bernie January 13 2014 at 9:42 AM

Banner lead in - “When they believe it will be over”

From the article -
" officials promised the ban on tap water that was tainted by a chemical spill would soon be lifted.”
"West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre. He gave no timetable for when people could start using the water again”
"We see light at the end of the tunnel," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told reporters.
"I can tell you at this point, I don't believe we're several days from starting to lift (the ban), but I'm not saying today,”

Boy…. am I glad we have answers now………..

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patandsandee January 13 2014 at 11:04 AM

I wouldn't believ a thing they say..
not deadly ....maybe not now ..what are future implications
questions : storing chemicals along side drinking water supplies, what about wildlife and food chain effects ???
"light at the end of the tunnel "???

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1 reply
jlarkin555 patandsandee January 13 2014 at 11:45 AM

I'm not defending the company or trying to minimize here, but it is possible that a chemical actually isn't fatal. You consume several every day that at small levels are fine, but at much higher levels would make you sick. It's called dose/response. It would be really dumb of the state officials and Freedom to suggest it's safe only to have that many more people get sick.

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1 reply
hellyon3too jlarkin555 January 13 2014 at 12:42 PM

Exactly. And that list of chemicals you consume every day that would be lethal at higher levels includes oxygen and water.

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