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One-third of customers have water

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- About one-third of the West Virginia American Water customers affected by a do-not-use water advisory had been told they can use their tap water as of Tuesday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday night.

Officials said there is still no timeline to completely restore water to everyone in the nine counties affected by the leak of a coal-processing chemical into the Elk River last week. About 300,000 residents were under the advisory at its peak.

The water company told residents in parts of Charleston and South Charleston that they could flush the pipes in their homes on Monday. But by Tuesday evening, just three more areas, all in Kanawha County, had been added to that list.

Testing teams with the West Virginia National Guard and the water company found a handful of areas where test results showed levels of Crude MCHM -- the chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries plant into the Elk -- above the 1-part-per-million level that officials say they're using to declare the water safe, officials said.

State officials have said they're relying on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for that number, but the CDC hasn't said how they arrived at that number and has referred questions back to the water company.

The water company is lifting the "do not use" ban by zones outward from its treatment facility in Charleston until it reaches the end of the system's lines. If one zone fails to show chemical levels below 1 part per million, it must be flushed by the water company and tested again before moving on to another zone.

"That causes frustration, because it's taking longer to get things done," said Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. "What you don't want is one of these folks that would be in an area where the result was above 1 [ppm] to have bad water."

About 1,000 samples have been drawn from the 3,000-square-mile system, and more than 590 samples have been analyzed, Hoyer said. The more rural sample points become, the longer it takes for testing analysis to take place, Hoyer said.

"[The] EPA has told us that in order to ensure validation, that 40 percent of the samples that we take have to be validated by running dual samples," Hoyer said. That means that "two different labs give the same confirmatory results," he said.

Continuous monitoring at the water company's intake and outtake on the Elk River, a mile and a half from the chemical leak, shows the levels are "no detection" for Crude MCHM, according to Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water.

The company has started to combine zones to create larger clusters for home system flushing, McIntyre said. Customers can find out the status of their zone by typing their address into an interactive map, a link to which is available at wvgazette.com. If customers still have questions about their zone, they can call a temporary hot line at 855-390-4569.

There was a hiccup with the water company's map Tuesday, as areas in Southridge and South Hills briefly showed up as OK for customers to flush their pipes around noon. That was rescinded a half-hour later, then made official around 4 p.m.

McIntyre blamed it on a miscommunication. "It shouldn't have happened, but it did," he said. "We apologize for it."

Those in the operations center were waiting for an additional sample to confirm that the zone could be flushed, McIntyre said. "All the water quality came back good ... we just didn't have that one verification," he said.

McIntyre said he now personally approves lifting the "do not use" advisory in specific areas.

Once people are given the OK to flush their pipes, the water company recommends running hot water through all faucets for 15 minutes, then cold water for five minutes, then further flushing of appliances and exterior faucets.

The water company said the state Department of Health and Human Resources provided them with details of the process. A DHHR spokeswoman said the water company's "flushing guidance" was reviewed by the State Health Officer, the Bureau for Public Health's Office of Environmental Health Services and by the affected local health departments. Both state and local health officials concurred with the guidelines developed by West Virginia American Water Co. to ensure water quality.

The eight affected counties -- Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Roane and Clay -- and the Culloden area of Cabell County remained under a state of emergency Tuesday evening.

State Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato said water is still being distributed in the affected areas. Water distribution stations in area where the water ban has been lifted are being diverted to areas that are still waiting, Gianato said.

About 200 restaurants throughout the area have been approved to reopen, according to health officials.

Officials, along with the water company, didn't have a plan to address the chemical spill, despite the filing of Tier 2 forms by Freedom Industries, the company that stored Crude MCHM alongside the river. Those forms are to be given to state and county emergency planning officials for use in developing response plans. No such plan existed in this case.

"[The Department of Environmental Protection is] already looking at sites and exactly what information we need that we don't have right now," Tomblin said Tuesday. "We want to make sure that this kind of accident doesn't happen again. We are doing everything in our power to make sure those kinds of protocols are in place to prevent this kind of event in the future."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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