01/14/2014 04:12 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Slowly, more people in W.Va. cleared to use water after spill, but it's a long wait for many

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Downtown businesses and restaurants began to reopen after water was declared safe to drink in portions of West Virginia's capital, but life has yet to return to normal for most of the 300,000 people who haven't been able to use running water in the five days since a chemical spill.

It could still be days before everyone in the Charleston metropolitan area is cleared to use water, though officials say the water in certain designated areas was safe to drink and wash with as long as people flushed out their systems. They cautioned that the water may still have a slight licorice-type odour, raising the anxieties of some who believed it was still contaminated.

"I wouldn't drink it for a while. I'm skeptical about it," said Wanda Blake, a cashier in the electronics section of a Charleston Kmart who fears she was exposed to the tainted water before she got word of the spill. "I know I've ingested it."

By Tuesday morning, officials had given the green light to about 35 per cent of West Virginia American Water's customers. Thursday's spill affected 100,000 customers in a nine-county area, or about 300,000 people in all.

The water crisis shuttered schools, restaurants and day-care centres, and truckloads of water had to be brought in from out of state. People were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. Hospitals were flushing out systems as were schools, which hoped to open again Wednesday.

In downtown Charleston, the first section of the city where water was declared safe, few signs of the crisis were visible late Monday and hotel guests were informed they could use everything but the ice machines.

But many businesses remained shuttered in outlying residential neighbourhoods. Charleston attorney Anthony Majestro represents several businesses that lost money while shut down and said he has lost count of the numerous lawsuits filed over the spill.

The Charleston Fire Department was continuing to give away cases of bottled water for free, and late Monday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles crept through a station about a mile north of downtown.

Fire Capt. Eddie Moore estimated that firefighters, police officers and other volunteers at the station had given away 2,500 cases of water Monday — more than 80,000 16-ounce bottles, or two tractor-trailers full. Firefighters loaded several cases into every vehicle that drove through.

Inside the station, the firefighters were surviving on frozen dinners, and Moore said the licorice smell from the taps was especially strong Monday morning.

Bernard Casdorph, 64, a field deputy for the county assessor's office, said he was making twice-daily trips to the station to collect water for himself, his mother, her neighbour and a cousin who uses a wheelchair. He said three days without a shower was enough for him to set aside his fears of the contaminant.

"I slipped. I went ahead and took a shower anyway. Maybe I shouldn't have," Casdorph said. "I just couldn't take it. I asked everybody, 'Am I turning green or blue?'"

Officials were lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system was not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service problems. An online map detailing what areas were cleared showed a very small portion in blue Monday evening and a vast area across nine counties still in the "do not use" red.

Customers were credited with 1,000 gallons of water, which was likely more than enough to flush out a system. The average residential customer uses about 3,300 gallons a month.

The water crisis started Thursday when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River.

Complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about the odour and officials discovered the source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which spilled out of a 40,000-gallon tank.

In all, state officials believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river and it's not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have opened an investigation.

Over the past few days, tests have showed that levels were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all.

Some people put plastic bags around faucets so they were reminded not to use the water. Others have left town to take a shower and find an open restaurant.

Only 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none were in serious condition. No fish kills were reported and there was no effect on aquatic life or wildlife, state officials 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.

Company president Gary Southern said Friday night that the leak had been stopped, but otherwise company officials have declined to comment.


Associated Press writers Pam Ramsey, Brendan Farrington, Mitch Weiss and Dylan Lovan contributed to this report.


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