West Virginia lifted a water ban for parts of the state Monday afternoon, five days after a chemical spill into the Elk River forced officials to bar about 300,000 residents in nine counties from using the water for anything other than flushing toilets or firefighting.
The ban was lifted first in "one small zone" in downtown Charleston and the city's East End, officials said. Other so-called "lift zones" will be announced in the days ahead, and the utility West Virginia American Water said it was uploading a lift-zone map to its website.
"It could still be days before we have the entire system cleared," said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre, whose water treatment plant on the Elk River was contaminated by the chemical. "It's a very large, complex system."
Water customers in the lift zones were told to let their taps run for anywhere from five to 15 minutes to flush out their water systems before consuming any of the water.
Officials were first alerted to the chemical spill about 8:15 a.m. Thursday, McIntyre said, when an odor indicated that thousands of gallons of a chemical used for cleaning coal had leaked from a ruptured storage tank into the Elk River just a mile upstream from the water plant.
About 7,500 gallons of the substance – known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM – went into the waterway from a facility owned by Freedom Industries. Although it is water-soluble, officials said, exposure to the chemical can cause nausea, vomiting, wheezing and skin irritation.
The amount of MCHM in the water needed to fall to one part per million before the water could be safely consumed, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said. Even still, an odor might remain in the lift zones, because "the odor threshold is 10 times lower" than the potability threshold, McIntyre explained.