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Slowly, Water Is Flowing Again In West Virginia

On Saturday in South Charleston, W.Va., Cathy Mabe was one of many who came to get water from a temporary filling station.
Lisa Hechesky
On Saturday in South Charleston, W.Va., Cathy Mabe was one of many who came to get water from a temporary filling station.

Relief is finally arriving for the 300,000 or so people in nine West Virginia counties who haven't been able to drink, cook or clean with their tap water for more than four days.

Officials announced at noon Monday that tests show the level of a potentially harmful chemical have fallen to the point where the water can be turned back on. But, they cautioned that the process of bringing customers back on line will take several days and has to be done systematically.

On 'Morning Edition': Ashton Marra reports from West Virginia

They urged water users in the affected areas to go to the website of West Virginia American Water, where a zone-by-zone schedule and map has been posted.

Update at 8:15 p.m. ET. At Least Three Zones Now Clear

Officials have lifted the ban on using water in several zones of the affected area, including downtown Charleston, a large portion of Kanawha City, and most of Southern Charleston. We've published that news in a separate post.

Our original post continues:

As each zone is given the clearance, customers are being asked to follow a three-step process:

1. Turn on all hot water taps for 15 minutes.

2. Turn on cold water taps for 5 minutes.

3. Turn on any outdoor taps for an additional 5 minutes.

Those steps should flush any tainted water out of their pipes.

There's additional guidance for how to deal with dishwashers, clothes washers and other appliances.

Customers are being asked NOT to start flushing their systems until their zone is given the OK. If all customers in the affected area turned on their taps at the same time, they said, the system would not be able to supply enough water.

The chemical, as we've been reporting, seeped into the Elk River near Charleston from a facility that treats coal.

Our original post — 'Just A Few More Days' And W. Va. Water Emergency May End — picks up the story:

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, 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'

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.