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West Virginians may wait days to get water back on

Elizabeth Weise

The 300,000 West Virginians who have been without water since Thursday will probably have have to wait days for it to be safe to use again after a chemical spill forced the closure of one of the state's largest water suppliers.

As many as 5,000 gallons of a foaming agent used in the production of coal escaped from a tank at Freedom Industries plant Thursday.

The chemical seeped into the Elk River, less than 2 miles from the center of Charleston. That river feeds into the Kanawha River, which goes to a water treatment plant that supplies more than 300,000 people.

(Read more: WestVirginia chemical spill prompts state of emergency)

The contaminated water means residents in nine counties who received their water from West Virginia American Water are unable to drink, bathe in or wash dishes or clothes with their tap water. That includes Charleston, the state capital and largest city.

Hiroshi Hara | Amana Images | Getty Images

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have said that drinking water is safe when levels of the chemical fall to 1 part per million or below, said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water.

"Currently there are four laboratories testing water samples from the river. When levels fall below 1 ppm the Do Not Use order can be removed," he said.

Initial testing found a level of 3 ppm, said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard.

First, however, the entire water system will need to be flushed out, a process that could take several days, he said. It is a difficult process because of the hilly nature of West Virginia and the large number of storage tanks required to keep the water system working, McIntyre said.

"We have 100 water storage tanks and 1,700 miles of pipe" to flush, he said.

Five people have been admitted to the hospital and 24 have sought treatment for symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, said Allison Adler of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources at a press conference Saturday in Charleston.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already brought in 4.1 million liters of water to the area and another 800,000 liters are on their way, said Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security.

The water that comes out of the taps is "gross," said Jane Haley, 48, in Charleston. "It's hard to describe how bad it smells."

Saturday was rainy "so I put out two coolers out and filled them up with rainwater. I heated the water up on (the) stove and used it to wash my hair," she said.

Others were more direct.

"I was laying in bed this morning and I heard the rain and I thought, 'Thank God,' " said Debbie Stevens, 54.

The Charleston resident grabbed her shampoo and conditioner and went outside to stand in her pajamas under a leaky gutter that was pouring rainwater.

"I washed my hair and then I came in and used my wet pajamas take a horse bath," she said.

The primary component in the foaming agent that leaked is the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

Engineers have placed booms in the Elk River to catch as much of the chemical as possible that might be leaking from the ground near the tank, said Mike Dorsey with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

"To the best of our knowledge there's no more material getting into the river," he said at the Saturday news conference. The tank itself is no longer leaking, he said.

However, once the chemical gets into the main body of the river, "there's not much you can do except let it flush through," Dorsey said.

The chemical disperses in the water and becomes more diluted, a process that "is happening in real time," he said.

The Kanawha River eventually feeds into the Ohio River, but the dilution factor makes Dorsey unconcerned about people who get their water from the Ohio.

"By the time you get to the Kanawha and then the Ohio, I don't see how it could be an issue for people downstream," he said.

Small businesses are reeling under the shutdown.

"We're not hearing anything from the state, that's what's scary," said Tammi Ray, 54, who owns Handiman Car Wash in Charleston. "This is our busy season. Up to Friday, we had done about 3,100 cars this week. People don't want the salt on their cars so they come in to get them cleaned up."

On Thursday night, she closed down her operation, putting her 12 employees out of work. "I can't risk it, it's a health hazard for my workers," she said.

To aid businesses, the state and local health departments are allowing those with portable water systems to reopen. The business must first submit a plan to the local health department, which will review and approve it and then do a site visit.

"The good news is we have begun reopening restaurants even as I speak,"said Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

"We'll be posting sings on those facilities saying they've been opened by the health department," he said.

Federal authorities, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation into Thursday's spill.

The leak was discovered Thursday at the bottom of a storage tank that held at least 40,000 gallons, according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. However, state officials believe no more than 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank.

Mary Beth Mangus, 51, lives just a quarter-mile from the plant, on the banks of the Elk River. The smell at her house on Thursday was unbearable and nauseating. "It made my dogs throw up," she said.

The company hasn't given a reason for the leak.

The spill has resulted in one amusing trend, said Haley. Many of her friends have college-age children at West Virginia University in Morgantown, north of the spill area.

"Usually college kids come home with their dirty clothes. But I've talked to three people now who've gone up to Morgantown to stay with their kids and do laundry."

By Elizabeth Weise of USA Today

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