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More in West Virginia cleared to use water after spill

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    Work continues around storage tanks at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday.

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    Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services tests the water as he flushes the faucet and opens a rest room on the first floor of the State Capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday.

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    Christie Peterson, left, and Melissa Appleton pass out cases of water at the Malden Volunteer Fire Department in Malden, W.Va., Sunday Jan. 12, 2014. The water emergency continues in the Charleston area due to a chemical spill. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)

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    West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, speaks during a press conference concerning the chemical spill, at the Capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. Starting with downtown Charleston, officials in West Virginia are gradually lifting the ban on using tap water in the nine counties affected by a chemical spill that tainted the water supply. The announcement Monday comes five days after some 300,000 people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. Tomblin says the testing of the water indicates that it's now safe enough for the ban to be lifted. It's being lifted area by area, so that the water system doesn't get overwhelmed by excessive demand. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    Commander of the West Virginia National Guard, Gen. James Hoyer, left, gestures as West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, right, looks on during a press conference at the capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 on the chemical spill that affected about 300,000 people. The Governor announced that the water system is ready to be flushed by zones with safe drinking water. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services flushes the water as he opens a rest room on the first floor of the State Capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The Governor announced that the water system is ready to be flushed by zones with safe drinking water after the chemical spill on Thursday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    Work continues around a storage tank with the chemical designation MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that leaked into the Elk River, at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The ban on tap water for parts of West Virginia was lifted on Monday, ending a crisis for a fraction of the 300,000 people who were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after a chemical spill tainted the water supply. Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services flushes the water as he opens a rest room on the first floor of the State Capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. Gov. Earl Tomblin announced that the water system is ready to be flushed by zones with safe drinking water after the chemical spill on Jan. 9. It could still be several days before everyone is cleared to use the water again, but officials were grateful to give the green light to about 6,000 to 10,000 customers. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    A worker moves a drilling machine around storage tanks at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The ban on tap water for parts of West Virginia was lifted on Monday, ending a crisis for a fraction of the 300,000 people who were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after a chemical spill tainted the water supply. Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, arrives for a press conference at the capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 on the chemical spill that affected about 300,000 people. The Governor announced that the water system is ready to be flushed by zones with safe drinking water. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    President of West Virginia American Water Company Jeffrey L. McIntyre, left, speaks as West Virginia Go. Earl Ray Tomblin, right, listens during a press conference at the capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 on the chemical spill that affected about 300,000 people. The Governor announced that the water system is ready to be flushed by zones with safe drinking water. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The ban on tap water for parts of West Virginia was lifted on Monday, ending a crisis for a fraction of the 300,000 people who were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after a chemical spill tainted the water supply. Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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    JoAnn Chapouris asks Paramedic John Johnson to carry a case of water inside her home in Rand, W.Va. Sunday Jan. 12, 2014. The water emergency continues in the Charleston area due to a chemical spill. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)

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    Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The ban on tap water for parts of West Virginia was lifted on Monday, ending a crisis for a fraction of the 300,000 people who were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after the chemical spill tainted the water supply. Gov. Earl Tomblin made the announcement at a news conference, five days after people were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services tests the water as he flushes the faucet and opens a rest room on the first floor of the State Capitol in Charleston, Va., Monday.

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CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Downtown businesses and restaurants began to reopen after water was declared safe to drink in portions of West Virginia’s capital, but life has yet to return to normal for most of the 300,000 people who haven’t been able to use running water in the five days since a chemical spill.

It could still be days before everyone in the Charleston metropolitan area is cleared to use water, though officials say the water in certain designated areas was safe to drink and wash with as long as people flushed out their systems. They cautioned that the water may still have a slight licorice-type odor, raising the anxieties of some who believed it was still contaminated.

“I wouldn’t drink it for a while. I’m skeptical about it,” said Wanda Blake, a cashier in the electronics section of a Charleston Kmart who fears she was exposed to the tainted water before she got word of the spill. “I know I’ve ingested it.”

By early today, officials had given the green light to about 25 percent of West Virginia American Water’s customers. Thursday’s spill affected 100,000 customers in a nine-county area, or about 300,000 people in all.

The water crisis shuttered schools, restaurants and day-care centers, and truckloads of water had to be brought in from out of state. People were told to use the water only to flush their toilets. Hospitals were flushing out systems as were schools, which hoped to open again Wednesday.

In downtown Charleston, the first section of the city where water was declared safe, few signs of the crisis were visible late Monday and hotel guests were informed they could use everything but the ice machines.

But many businesses remained shuttered in outlying residential neighborhoods. Charleston attorney Anthony Majestro represents several businesses that lost money while shut down and said he has lost count of the numerous lawsuits filed over the spill.

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Work continues around storage tanks at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, Va., Monday.

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The Charleston Fire Department was continuing to give away cases of bottled water for free, and late Monday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles crept through a station about a mile north of downtown.

Fire Capt. Eddie Moore estimated that firefighters, police officers and other volunteers at the station had given away 2,500 cases of water Monday — more than 80,000 16-ounce bottles, or two tractor-trailers full. Firefighters loaded several cases into every vehicle that drove through.

Inside the station, the firefighters were surviving on frozen dinners, and Moore said the licorice smell from the taps was especially strong Monday morning.

Bernard Casdorph, 64, a field deputy for the county assessor’s office, said he was making twice-daily trips to the station to collect water for himself, his mother, her neighbor and a cousin who uses a wheelchair. He said three days without a shower was enough for him to set aside his fears of the contaminant.

“I slipped. I went ahead and took a shower anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t have,” Casdorph said. “I just couldn’t take it. I asked everybody, ‘Am I turning green or blue?’”

Officials were lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system was not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service problems. An online map detailing what areas were cleared showed a very small portion in blue Monday evening and a vast area across nine counties still in the “do not use” red.

Customers were credited with 1,000 gallons of water, which was likely more than enough to flush out a system. The average residential customer uses about 3,300 gallons a month.

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 the odor and officials discovered the source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which spilled out of a 40,000-gallon tank.

In all, state officials believe about 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river and it’s not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have opened an investigation.

Over the past few days, tests have showed that levels were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all.

Some people put plastic bags around faucets so they were reminded not to use the water. Others have left town to take a shower and find an open restaurant.

Only 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none were in serious condition. No fish kills were reported and there was no effect on aquatic life or wildlife, state officials said.

The chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Company president Gary Southern said Friday night that the leak had been stopped, but otherwise company officials have declined to comment.

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