By Ian Simpson
Jan 13 (Reuters) - West Virginia officials on Monday lifted a ban on drinking or bathing with tap water in some areas of the state hit by a chemical spill that affected hundreds of thousands of people for five days, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said.
Consumers in cleared areas should flush out their systems before using the water, which had been barred for use except for toilets since the chemical discharge into the Elk River on Thursday, he told a news conference.
"The numbers we have look good, and we are finally at a point where the do-not-use order has been lifted in certain areas," Tomblin said.
Officials had ordered some 300,000 people not to drink their tap water after as much as 7,500 gallons (28,000 liters) of the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, leaked into the river.
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co , said the first area cleared for use was in downtown Charleston, the state capital. Priority was being given to areas with major hospitals.
Later in the day, people and businesses in the area around Kanawha City were given clearance to begin flushing water through their plumbing systems, a precursor to being allowed to actually use it.
It could be several days before the entire system with its hundreds of miles (kms) of pipe is safe to use, McIntyre said at the news conference.
The crude MCHM chemical, which is used in coal processing, leaked into the river from a tank at a Freedom Industries site about a mile (1.6 kilometers) upriver from an American Water treatment plant, the biggest in the state.
Tomblin declared a state of emergency in nine counties, including Charleston, shutting down schools and businesses.
Freedom Industries, which makes specialty chemicals for the cement, mining and steel industries, has apologized for the incident.
As of Monday morning, 18 lawsuits had been filed in the Kanawha County court against Freedom Industries and the water company by business owners and individuals who say they lost wages or were injured, according to the court clerk.
SMELLS LIKE LICORICE
U.S. President Barack Obama declared the spill an emergency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent dozens of tractor trailers loaded with clean water.
The water cutoff forced hundreds of thousands of people to use only bottled water and forego cleaning for days.
Water tainted by crude MCHM smells faintly of licorice. Contact with the water can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin.
A total of 231 people had visited emergency rooms with symptoms, and 14 had been admitted, said Karen Bowling, the state Department of Health and Human Resources secretary.
None was in critical condition, she said.
State School Superintendent James Phares said some schools may be able to open on Tuesday as water systems were cleaned out.
Health officials were monitoring water quality downstream from the spill on the Elk, Kanawha and Ohio rivers. McIntyre said tests at his company's Huntington, West Virginia, plant showed presence of the crude MCHM at levels far below the 1 part per million level safety standard set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia are investigating the spill.
Officials at the news conference said they were considering state regulations to lessen the impact of a spill, including setbacks of chemical sites from vulnerable areas.
In Washington, Representatives Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Paul Tonko of New York, the top Democrat on the panel's environment subcommittee, urged Republican Committee Chairman John Shimkus of Illinois to hold a hearing to explore "regulatory gaps" exposed by the spill.