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West Virginia begins to lift water ban following chemical spill

A ban on tap water was lifted Monday in West Virginia after a chemical spill left 300,000 residents in nine counties with a contaminated water supply for five days, the Associated Press reports.

In a news conference Monday, W.Va. Gov. Earl Tomblin said the ban would be lifted in a “strict, methodical manner” to prevent excessive demand from overwhelming the water system. It could still be several days before everyone is cleared to use water again, but officials gave the green light to about 6,000 to 10,000 customers Monday.

“It could be still days before we have the entire system cleared,” West Virginia American Water Co. President Jeff McIntyre said. “It’s a very large, complex system.”

Gov. Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday when about 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in coal production, leaked from a 1-inch hole of a 40,000 holding tank near Charleston, W.Va., into the nearby Elk River. Residents complained of licorice smell in the air and water. During the water crisis, officials told affected West Virginians to not wash, drink or cook with the tainted water.

Hari Sreenivasan talks to Charleston, W.Va. Mayor Danny Jones on Friday on how the chemical spill was affecting his community. Video by PBS NewsHour

AP reports that the chemical compound isn’t toxic, but can cause symptoms from skin irritation to vomiting and diarrhea. Karen Bowling, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources said. Bowling reported that hospitals received 231 complaints connected to the tainted water; 14 were admitted.

Residents have been instructed to flush out their plumbing systems before using the water again. Officials also warned that the water may still have a residual odor, although it’s safe to use.

Investigators are unsure what caused the leak, but the tank, part of a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc., isn’t heavily monitored by state or local inspectors. The Wall Street Journal reports that the last time an environmental inspector visited the area was more than 20 years ago.

Follow @wvpublicnews for continuing coverage on the chemical spill:

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