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Health department scrambles to reopen restaurants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County health inspectors are working late and starting early to get as many local restaurants as possible back up and running following last week's water emergency.

"I'm losing $6,000 to $8,000 a day," said Deno Stanley, owner of Adelphia Sports Bar in downtown Charleston. "Three or four more days of this and I don't think I could recover."

On Thursday, Freedom Industries spilled 7,500 gallons of a chemical used in the coal industry into the Elk River in Charleston. The chemical was quickly sucked into the water intakes at West Virginia American Water's water treatment plant downstream, where charcoal filters failed to strip the chemical out.

The chemical contaminated the water supply for about 300,000 people, and prompted state and local officials to order residents in parts of nine West Virginia counties not to use their water for drinking, cooking or bathing. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, which oversees health concerns in Kanawha and Putnam counties, immediately ordered all restaurants and food establishments in both counties to shut down immediately.

Adelphia was one of a handful of local restaurants given conditional permission to reopen over the weekend using bottled water for cooking and cleaning, but the effect of the water ban was devastating to local eateries.

Water company officials began to lift the water use ban on Monday, after levels of the chemical dropped to levels they deemed safe. Customers in downtown Charleston and the city's East End were told they could flush their water systems and again start using the water.

Nasandra Wright, sanitarian supervisor for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said health inspectors then went into high gear to re-inspect local restaurants and give them permission to reopen.

Wright said restaurants at the Charleston Town Center mall were inspected and cleared to re-open Monday night. Aided by health inspectors from other counties and National Guard members from neighboring states, inspectors worked until midnight Monday and started again at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Wright said more than 80 restaurants and eateries had been cleared to re-open by Tuesday afternoon, with some inspection teams doing as many as 25 inspections a day.

But Wright said she couldn't do it without help. Ordinarily she has a staff of seven full-time sanitarians, but about 20 were out and about on Tuesday.

Wright said it can take from one to two hours to completely inspect a large restaurant. "That's why we need extra help," she said. "It's not an inspection you can do in five minutes."

Wright said inspection teams were going into areas and fanning out to hit several restaurants at once.

She said inspection teams will go into areas as soon as water company officials tell them it's safe to use the water. The health department's goal is to get every restaurant in a given water zone open within 24 hours of notification that it's safe to use the water.

Stanley, who had been operating using bottled soft drinks and bagged ice since Sunday, said he was "ecstatic" to be given full approval again from the health department on Tuesday. Passing the inspection meant he could flush his water lines, replace all the filters in his equipment, and go back to business as usual.

A call from local officials to support local restaurants hurt by the water ban was helping, as well.

"Today we just got blown out of the water," he said Tuesday afternoon from the bustle of a restaurant filled to capacity. "The past two days have gotten us over the hump."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215


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