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West Virginia chemical spill water ban to be lifted

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Media captionGovernor Earl Ray Tomblin asked West Virginians to be patient as the ban eases

West Virginia authorities have begun easing a ban on drinking tap water enacted after a chemical spill tainted much of the state's water supply.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced some of the 300,000 people affected could begin using the water on Monday.

Only residents of designated areas were authorised to begin consuming water until further testing could be done.

On Thursday, a chemical used to process coal leaked from a plant into the Elk river.

"The numbers we have today look good and we are finally at a point where the 'do not use order' has been lifted," Governor Tomblin told reporters on Monday.

At least 6,000 water customers in the state capital of Charleston were cleared to use tap water.

No 'rush back'

West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre warned it could be days before the entire system was cleared of contaminated water.

Officials said they were lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to prevent excessive demand and additional water quality problems.

Residents were asked to flush their own water systems before use as a precaution.

School official James Phares told the Associated Press he hoped the largest two school systems affected could reopen on Tuesday, but "we're not going to be rushing them back to school if it's not safe".

The contamination had forced authorities to close schools and businesses in nine counties last week, and the state legislature in the capital city of Charleston cancelled a legislative session.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones called the spill "devastating to the public at large and to the people that live in our city" on Friday.

The spill was first found after the state's environmental protection department received a report of a strange odour near the Elk river on Thursday.

Officials found a leaking storage unit, a spokesman said. The spill had overrun a containment area and leaked into the river.

While the leaking container held at least 40,000 gallons (182,000 litres), state environmental official Tom Aluise said investigators were "confident" that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped.

Coal manufacturer Freedom Industries said the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, could be harmful if swallowed and could cause skin and eye irritation.

The company's president Gary Southern said on Friday the company believed it had "mitigated the risk... in terms of further material leaving this facility".

The chemicals stored by Freedom Industries were not required to have a permit nor did their tanks fall under an inspection programme, but some officials were considering a change to those rules.

Randy Huffman, the state's director for environmental protection, said one idea would be to require tanks to be a certain distance from the river.

Image copyright AP

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