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A ban on tap water is being gradually lifted today in the area of West Virginia that was hit by a chemical that spilled into a river and tainted the water supply.
Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference today, five days after about 300,000 people were told not to drink, wash or use the water in any way other than to flush their toilets.
Officials are lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system is not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service issues.
The water crisis started Thursday when the chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River.
It’s still not clear exactly what caused a tank to start leaking the chemical.
West Virginia Public Radio reporter Ashton Marra joins Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer with the latest, and Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with John Kaiser, who manages the Steak Escape sandwich chain restaurant in Trace Fork, W. Va.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
For NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer, in for Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And there's good news in West Virginia. Officials there have lifted part - just part - of that water ban put in place because of last week's chemical spill. The ban has meant that for about five days, 300,000 residents in nine counties in West Virginia have had no water for drinking, bathing, cooking, washing clothes. Here's Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia Water.
JEFF MCINTYRE: Turn on all of your hot water taps and flush for 15 minutes, and shut those taps back off. Turn on your cold water taps and flush for five minutes, and then turn those off. Then go outside to your outside taps and any fixtures that you have outside and flush those for five minutes.
PFEIFFER: The ban came after a chemical used for washing coal spilled into the Elk River near an intake for a water treatment facility. That forced the state and federal government to declare a state of emergency for the area. And the spill has raised questions about government oversight of chemicals used by industries in West Virginia.
Ashton Marra, a statehouse reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, is with us. And Ashton, what a relief. Again, this is a partial lifting of the ban. It's being lifted in zones. What's the reasoning behind this staggered approach?
ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: Basically, the person we just heard from, Jeff McIntyre, the president of West Virginia American Water, is explaining that if everyone starts flushing their system now, there will be the use of more water than that water treatment facility can even produce in a day. So the idea is there needs to be a constant pressure stream from each of these - for you to be able to clean the system out of your house, out of businesses, out of hospitals, most importantly.
So that's why they're asking to do this in a systematic way. They're really pushing the idea that, yes, we're starting to give the all-clear, but please, please wait to do it in your zone. Otherwise, you're hurting the process and making everybody, basically, have to wait longer.
PFEIFFER: It also sounds, from listening to that bit of his description, that this is not a simple process to start reusing the water.
MARRA: It is not simple at all. As you heard, there are three steps for you to flush your home yourself, but then on top of that, you have to think about appliances and cleaning faucets within your home. I mean, we've got a list of ways to clean icemakers, dishwashers, washing machines, humidifiers, water filters. This list goes on and on. So it's going to be a very complicated, very detailed process for homeowners. But it's also a very important one, and something to be taken very seriously.
PFEIFFER: And this incident in general has raised a lot of concerns about the safety of the water supply. Give us a sense of some of the issues that have come up and things that people are now questioning about sort of the integrity of the system.
MARRA: I think the biggest question that was asked in the press conference today was: Why should West Virginians trust that you can provide them a safe, clean water system in the future if you didn't even know this chemical was a mile upstream from you? And, basically, we don't have an answer yet. President McIntyre has said, you know, this is an award-winning treatment facility. We are prepared to take on issues like this. But, obviously, this was a chemical that they didn't know much about. He says they will be conducting risk assessments in the future, but can't give us a timeline on when something like that will actually happen.
PFEIFFER: Ashton, in a few minutes, we're going to be talking with a local business owner there, and he'll talk about how he's been impacted. But give us a sense, from your own reporting, of what the effect of this has been on the region, because I believe your area was also hit with an ice storm earlier this month.
MARRA: It's been difficult for a lot of businesses to maintain a steady stream of revenue. I mean, if you are just - I'm in the capital city of Charleston right now, and to just drive down, downtown, everything is closed. Everything has been closed on weeknights. It's basically like a ghost town, is what it looks like.
Now, they've started to put processes in place for these restaurants to put - basically contingency plans. They have to show that they have a secondary clean water source, use things like paper plates and hand sanitizers in their restaurants in order for them to be able to open. But even in that detailed process that they must follow, we've only had less than 10 restaurants able to follow that procedure so far.
PFEIFFER: And in the interim, have people been relying on bottled water, or driving distances to friends and family members to take showers?
MARRA: I think we're seeing that both of those things are happening. I mean, you just hear from members of the media themselves saying, well, yeah, I took a shower with a bottle of water this morning, and that's the best we can do. But there are public service districts, these smaller water sources, that are within driving distance of most areas.
But still, you're seeing people driving 20, 30, 40 minutes, ultimately, to get to showers or to get to do laundry, because they do still have to go to work and conduct business in their daily lives.
PFEIFFER: Ashton Marra is a statehouse reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. She's been talking to us about the partial lifting of the water ban that's been put in place there due to a chemical spill. Ashton, thanks very much.
MARRA: Thank you.
YOUNG: Well, the news that the water ban is being lifted, even by zones, partially, is welcome, although there are still businesses outside those zones struggling. Businesses with health licenses like day care center were forced to close entirely, although some restaurants were allowed to open over the weekend, after they demonstrated that they could provide sanitary conditions without running water.
The Steak Escape in Trace Fork did just that. John Kaiser's restaurant serves a lot of cheesesteaks and fries. So they figured they don't have a lot of dishes or fruits and veggies to wash. Toilets could use the contaminated water to flush, and then they bought bottled water for hand-washing stations for customers and employees.
But Jeff, steak and fries, you told us you needed more bottled water for those potatoes.
JOHN KAISER: I just discovered that this morning when I went to wash potatoes. We hand-cut our French fries. I said, oh. That's one reason I was at Sam's buying more water, because I forgot about washing potatoes.
YOUNG: Well, when we spoke to you earlier today, when you were at Sam's picking up gallons of water to wash potatoes, as you said, and to reinforce your hand-washing stations in the restaurant, you said at that time, you were going to become at least part of at least a dozen lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of businesses forced to shut down. And you've since changed your mind. Why?
KAISER: Because some of the lawsuits are being overly aggressive and broad in naming American Water in the lawsuit. And until we've determined that, really, there's a reason to name them, that they did anything wrong, we feel we shouldn't just go attacking them and throwing lawsuits out there, because it's easy to grab the big pockets.
Now, Freedom Industry, if they're named in a lawsuit only, and others who caused the accident, then we are definitely looking into joining that lawsuit.
YOUNG: American Water is the water company in your area, and you feel these lawsuits might unfairly target them. They might be as much a victim as you. But Freedom Industries, this is the chemical company. Now, it's being widely reported that they were in something of a regulatory loophole, because they store these chemicals used in cleaning coal rather than use them for manufacturing or transfer them.
And others are saying, as we've heard, the chemical that leaked wasn't tracked by federal programs. No state regulator had visited the company since 1991. The chair of the county group that organizes emergency responses didn't even know the chemicals were upriver from a water treatment plant. The company itself submitted a list of chemicals a year ago.
In 2002, the State Department of Health and Human Resources identified the Freedom site - it was then a Quaker State site - as a potential threat to the water supply. There wasn't more study done by the state. So, some might be wondering: Shouldn't others be actually suing the state and federal officials?
KAISER: Well, that's something to look at. And, you know, I will tell you about the Elk River, where the spill was. It's a great river. We boat on it all summer long. We're pretty close to this plant, and we pass that, you know, all the time. That plant's been there for years. So those tanks, I'm not sure - they're probably using tanks that are 30 years old.
And they really, you know, they put a lot of damage into a river system that is just a great place for recreation and to use our drinking water. I really think this is a serious thing to look at with the state, and what is sitting on the banks of our river.
YOUNG: Well, but I guess that's the question. Unless it's found that the company directly violated regulations, are you wondering why there aren't more regulations?
KAISER: Yeah, and we also don't know anything about this chemical. I mean, they keep saying we don't know if it can harm you. We don't know if it can't. What is this chemical? Is it harmful? Nobody's really able to answer that question.
YOUNG: So many people in this area are so tied to the coal industry. Do you wonder about that, as well? I mean, should citizens have had more questions, or do you feel you've been let down by the officials and the company?
KAISER: You know, this is going to be interesting when we find out, because I've also heard other things about this particular chemical. And it came about through what's called syntax - synfuel tax that they're using for alternative fuel, and they found a way to use this as a cleaning agent for coal. And a lot of companies got a lot of tax breaks because of this particular way of using it, is what I'm understanding.
YOUNG: You're saying that coal plants have been required to have cleaner coal. This is one of the ways they were doing that. And maybe that should've been more closely watched, is what it sounds like you're saying.
KAISER: Well, yeah, unintended consequences. There's a whole lot of problems, and yes, we definitely - I think it's going to wake up a lot of citizens not to be against the coal companies, but to be involved. I hope it does get people involved, and quit letting everyone think the legislators and the politicians are in our best interest.
YOUNG: Well, meanwhile, the Charleston Area Alliance - that's the state's largest regional Chamber of Commerce - is urging people like you business owners to check your insurance policies to see if you can make claims over lost sales. How much do you think you lost, and do you think you're covered?
KAISER: From my initial - from our initial talk with our insurance agent, we do not have what's called a business interruption rider on our policy. We may find coverage under another part of the policy. Insurance policies, as anyone who's had an accident or a homeowner's claims finds out, some things that you think are covered aren't, and some things are.
So we're going to probably eat a lot of the money we lost, and until we can hopefully get - if we can even get compensation from the responsible parties.
YOUNG: And how much is that, like, $10,000 a day, or something, we heard?
KAISER: No, no. Like I said, we're a - that's one of the reasons we were able to open so quickly. We're a simple operation, not huge volume, but it's a lot to us. And we're $3,000 to $4,000 on a Saturday, $2,000 during the week.
YOUNG: Well, plus you had to hire some people to help you get out of this, also.
KAISER: You know, we have two other restaurants in Charleston. They have not - one of them just got open this morning, at the Charleston Town Center Mall. The other one is closed down, and I borrowed some of their help to pick up some of the volume and help with the manpower of toting water and maintaining sanitary conditions.
YOUNG: Yeah. John Kaiser, of the Steak Escape there in Charleston, West Virginia. John, thanks so much.
KAISER: Oh thank you, Robin.
PFEIFFER: Some other stories we're following: Today in Little Rock, Arkansas, a federal judge is considering a deal that would end one of the longest-running and most notorious school desegregation cases in the country. It stems from a 1957 standoff, when an angry white crowd confronted the nine black students who tried to integrate Central High School.
But do 60 years of desegregation mean classes are now truly integrated? We'll have that and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.