West Virginia Eases Water Ban After Chemical Spill

Authorities investigating who is to blame

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Residents line up for water at a water filling station at West Virginia State University, in Institute, West Virginia, January 10, 2014.

West Virginia officials on Monday began lifting the four-day-old tap water ban that has disrupted life in parts of the state since a chemical spill into the Elk River contaminated the water supply Thursday.

The ban was being lifted slowly, starting in the area near Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city, in order to avoid further problems caused by a rapid spike in demand, the Associated Press reports.

“The numbers we hdave today look good an we are finally at a point where the ‘do not use’ order has been lifted,” Gov. Earl Tomblin said during a news conference.

State authorities issued the ban after customers reported a strange licorice smell in the tap water. An investigation revealed the odor was a result of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCMH, about 7,500 gallons of which had leaked out of a 40,000 tank at a Freedom Industries facility. People in nine West Virginia counties were warned to avoid all physical contact with tap water. With residences and businesses unable to wash dishes, cook with water, bathe or even wash clothes, some residents left the area to take a shower or find a place to eat.

Officials, including those with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the U.S. Attorney’s office, are now investigating events surrounding the spill, including whether or not Freedom Industries waited too long before reporting it. When investigators arrived at the scene after being tipped off by water customers, representatives from the company were already present, though the company had not yet reported the spill to state authorities, the AP reports.

The incident has also highlighted potentially dangerous gaps in regulation, as the company, with its facility on the banks of the Elk River, apparently operated without oversight from either state or federal officers.

Though dangerous and clearly disruptive, compared to past chemical spills around the country and even just in coal-country West Virginia, it doesn’t look like Thursday’s leak will prove catastrophic. Just 14 people have been hospitalized after being exposed to polluted water and none were in serious condition.

MCMH has a half-life of two weeks in water, meaning half of it is naturally broken down every two weeks, according to Scientific American. In soil, that process takes about a month and in the sedimentary muck on the riverbed about 140 days.