CHARLESTON - West Virginians affected by a chemical spill that contaminated drinking water are making a slow return to normal life, with some nearing an entire week without being able to shower, cook or wash clothes at home.
As of late Tuesday, about half of West Virginia American Water's customers had been allowed to use their water again. The crisis began last Thursday when a chemical spilled into the Elk River, affecting 300,000 residents and closing schools, restaurants and businesses.
The ban on water use for anything but flushing toilets was being lifted in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system was not overwhelmed. Authorities continued to hand out free bottled water at distribution stations.
CLOSER TO NORMAL — Jonathan Steele, owner of Bluegrass Kitchen, fills a jug with cleaning water in the back of his restaurant in Charleston, Tuesday. Steele installed a large tank in the back of his restaurant and was able to open his restaurant using bottled water on Sunday. -- Associated Press
Matthew Davis, 21, was among those still waiting for the ban to be lifted. After rinsing off at a creek last week, he finally enjoyed a hot shower Tuesday at his fiancee's house 30 minutes away. Davis had his wisdom teeth removed just before the water ban.
"Pretty much all I had was Coke, and that hurt," he said.
The water crisis started Thursday when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River.
Complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about an odor, and officials discovered the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was leaking out of a 40,000-gallon tank.
Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, are investigating.
Only 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none was seriously ill.
The chemicals removed from Freedom Industries' Elk River site have been shipped to another facility the company owns. The facility is in nearby Nitro, not near a water source, state officials said late Tuesday.
All hospitals but one had running water. The exception was Boone Memorial Hospital in Madison, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said.
There were still some areas on the edges of the water system with chemical levels exceeding the acceptable amount, said West Virginia National Guard Adjutant Gen. James A. Hoyer.
More than 200 restaurants have reopened where the ban has been lifted, said Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin.
Schools in all four counties in the still-affected areas were to remain closed Wednesday. Tomblin did not provide a timeline for school to resume.
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich came to Charleston after she said she received thousands of online requests to visit and look into the spill. Brockovich said she believes officers from Freedom Industries should face criminal charges.
"It would've cost so much less to identify the leak, report the leak, fix the leak instead of ignore the leak. This is going to be hundreds of millions of dollars," she said.
Officials cautioned that even water that was deemed safe may still have a slight licorice-type odor, raising the anxieties of some.
Bobbi Holland, who lives in the Edgewood neighborhood, went to wash her face Monday night after flushing out her system.
"It smelled stronger than ever and I was like, 'Oh no,'" she said Tuesday. "But when I woke up this morning, there wasn't any odor."
Said Beverly Farrow, another Edgewood resident: "I have not brushed my teeth or rinsed my mouth with the water yet. I'm still kind of waiting on that."