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'Just A Few More Days' And W. Va. Water Emergency May End

NPR icon by Mark Memmott
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Lisa Hechesky

Phrases such as "light at the end of the tunnel" are being used by officials in West Virginia as they give about 300,000 people there hope that they'll soon be able to use the water that's supplied to their homes and businesses.

It was last Thursday, as we reported, when a chemical used in coal processing leaked into the Elk River near Charleston and then into the region's water supply system. Residents and businesses across nine counties were warned not to use the water coming from their taps because the chemical — methylcyclohexene methanol — can cause severe burning in the throat, vomiting and skin blistering.

Since Thursday, state and federal officials have been trucking water into the affected counties. About 10 people, according to Charleston's Sunday Gazette-Mail, have been hospitalized "with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure. ... An additional 169 people have been treated at hospitals and released."

Now, as West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra tells Morning Edition, "we have some sort of idea that things are moving in the right direction. We're hoping [it may] be just a few more days" before the all-clear is given.

Officials, she said, are testing the water. Once they're confident that the chemical has dissipated, they'll then begin flushing the entire nine-county system — a process that will include asking homeowners to run their taps.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, D, said over the weekend that the test results "are trending in the right direction." That led him, as the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported, to say "we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel."

According to the Gazette-Mail:

"Once water is found acceptable for normal use, flushing can begin — zone by zone — to not strain the system. ...

"The zones where flushing would begin first include downtown Charleston, the East End Kanawha City, South Charleston, the West Side and North Charleston. Those areas include four major hospitals.

"An Internet based mapping system is being created for customers to search their home or business address to see what zone they are in and if they should begin flushing. It will be available at www.westvirginiaamwater.com, but it is not yet live. A 24-hour hotline is also being established, officials announced."

Life in the affected counties, Ashton says, has been frustrating. "You obviously can't cook, you can't clean, you can't bathe in any of that running water that you typically use. ... To have clean clothes, to be able to take a shower — some people are having to drive as much as 40 minutes to find another place to do these things where the water is still running and they're still able to use it."

There's much more about the water crisis and what lies ahead for people in the affected area on West Virginia Public Broadcasting's website, including these posts:

-- End of Outage May Be in Sight for Water Customers, Businesses

-- 7 Things We Know About the Chemical Spill in West Virginia

-- West Virginians Angry About Spill; Still Want Chemical, Coal Jobs

-- AUDIO: Tomblin's Sunday Briefing / Water Company to Establish Website for Clearing 'Zones'

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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