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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The smell lingers — the slightly sweet, slightly bitter odor of a chemical that contaminated the water supply of West Virginia's capital more than a week ago. It creeps out of faucets and shower heads. It wafts from the Elk River, the site of the spill. Sometimes it hangs in the cold nighttime air.

For several days, a majority of Charleston-area residents have been told their water is safe to drink, that the concentration of a chemical used to wash coal is so low that it won't be harmful. Restaurants have reopened — using tap water to wash dishes and produce, clean out their soda fountains and make ice.

But as long as people can still smell it, they're wary — and given the lack of knowledge about the chemical known as MCHM, some experts say their caution is justified.

"I would certainly be waiting until I couldn't smell it anymore, certainly to be drinking it," said Richard Denison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has followed the spill closely. "I don't blame people at all for raising questions and wondering whether they can trust what's being told to them."

The Jan. 9 spill from a Freedom Industries facility on the banks of the Elk River, less than 2 miles upstream from Charleston's water treatment plant, led to a ban on water use that affected 300,000 people.

Four days later, officials started to lift the ban in one area after another, saying tap water was safe for drinking because the concentration of the chemical dipped below one part per million, even though the smell was still strong at that level. By Friday afternoon, nearly all of the 300,000 people impacted had been told the water was safe.

Late Wednesday, however, health officials issued different guidance for pregnant women, urging them not to drink tap water until the chemical is entirely undetectable. The Centers for Disease Control said it made that recommendation out of an abundance of caution because existing studies don't provide a complete picture of how the chemical affects humans.

For Sarah Bergstrom, a 29-year-old nurse who is four months pregnant with her second child, the news was devastating. She hasn't drunk the water since the spill, but she has taken showers.

"I cried myself to sleep (Wednesday) night. I was both angry and scared," she said. "This baby that we've wanted for so long, I'm now questioning — have I done something that could have harmed her?"

Bergstrom said she's fortunate that she can afford bottled water, which she intends to use for the foreseeable future.

"My biggest fear is for those mothers, those pregnant women out there who aren't able to go get enough bottled water for their family, who don't have the resources and don't have the knowledge base to know that this is not safe," she said.

Karen Bowling, West Virginia's secretary of Health and Human Resources, said pregnant women who drank the water before being told to avoid it should contact their doctors. For the rest of the population, Bowling said she is confident the tap water is not harmful.

"It's understandable that people are concerned. I don't want to minimize anybody's feelings about an issue as sensitive as this," said Bowling, who said she drank the tap water after it was declared safe. "It's hard to instill confidence when there's little known about the chemical, but at the same time we have to trust in the science of what's happening."

According to the health department, 411 patients have been treated at hospitals for symptoms that patients said came from exposure to the chemical, and 20 people have been admitted. Also, more than 1,600 people have called poison control to complain of symptoms. Bowling said the department is trying to sort out how many of those patients were actually sickened by the chemical, and not by other diseases.

Given the uncertainty, many people in this coal-dependent swath of central West Virginia known as Chemical Valley say avoiding the water is a prudent decision.

Jeff Duff, a 42-year-old contractor from South Charleston, is drinking bottled water and taking showers at his brother's house about 25 miles to the west, where the tap water comes from a different source.

"I'm not touching it," Duff said. "I just don't trust it. I don't think they know enough about it to give us a clear answer — not enough for my safety and my kids' safety."

Duff said his self-imposed ban also applies to eating at restaurants in the affected area because he's leery about residue left by the chemical on washed dishes.

The CDC relied on two studies of the chemical's effect on animals to establish the safe standard of one part per million, but data from them is not publicly available.

"This is a dynamic and moving event. There are many things happening. And we are trying to do our best," Dr. Vikas Kapil of the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry told reporters in a conference call Thursday. "There are uncertainties. There is little known about this material."

MCHM is one of tens of thousands of chemicals exempt from testing under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act because they were already in use when the law was approved in 1976. A fact sheet of available data on the chemical says there is no specific information about its toxic effects on humans. Its chances of causing cancer and its effects on reproductive health are unknown, according to the document and the CDC.

At a busy Charleston intersection a few blocks from West Virginia American Water's treatment plant, Barry Sean Rogers was recently staging a one-man protest with a sign that read: "Our water is unsafe. We are being lied to."

Rogers, 51, isn't using tap water at his downtown apartment until he gets some answers. He's drinking and bathing in bottled water, and when he leaves his apartment, he turns the taps on to flush out the pipes.

"If I turn it on, it drives me out of the apartment. It still smells. It's nasty. I get headaches, nausea," Rogers said.

Published in National News
   CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Restaurants closed their doors, groceries stores sold out of bottled water and thousands of children got an extra day off from school as residents were told to not bathe, brush their teeth, or wash their clothes following a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water in nine West Virginia counties.
   Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday after a spill from Freedom Industries inundated the river and a nearby water treatment plant.
   Customers of West Virginia American Water in the affected areas got the order from Tomblin on Thursday night: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.
   The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries, overran a containment area and went into the river earlier Thursday.
   Officials say the orders — which the water company also delivered to residents via automated telephone messages — were issued as a precaution, as they are still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.
   "I don't know if the water is not safe," said water company president Jeff McIntyre. "Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can't say how long this (advisory) will last at this time."
   McIntyre said the chemical isn't lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Freedom Industries officials were unavailable for comment.
   According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed and causes eye and skin irritation and could be harmful if inhaled.
   The emergency declaration involves customers in all or parts of the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. In the capital city of Charleston, a smell similar to licorice or cough syrup was evident in the air both outdoors and in areas where it had already reached the water supply.
   The smell was especially strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The Marriott shut off all water to rooms, and then turned it back on so guests could flush toilets. Each guest was given two 16.9-ounce bottles of spring water upon returning to the hotel.
   The West Virginia National Guard planned to mobilize at an air base at Charleston's Yeager Airport on Friday to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine counties, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina told The Associated Press.
   "They're committing all necessary resources to help with this," Messina said Thursday night.
   Messina said the drinking water will come from several different suppliers. After distribution, the various county agencies "will use their own game plans to distribute it, with hospitals and nursing homes getting priority," Messina said.
   Most people weren't waiting for outside help.
   Once word got out about the governor's declaration Thursday, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.
   "It was chaos, that's what it was," cashier Danny Cardwell said.
   Tomblin said the advisory also extends to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water.
   At the Little India restaurant in Charleston, about 12 customers were asked to leave when bar manager Bill LaCourse learned about the shutdown notice.
   West Virginia lawmakers who just started their session this week won't conduct business on Friday because of the problem and State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed.
   Karlee Bolen, 16, of Charleston, said her family, including her parents, two sisters and brother, were considering the possibility of heading to her grandmother's home in Braxton County, where tap water was unaffected, an hour to the northeast.
   "I kind of want to shower and brush my teeth," she said.
Published in National News

A West Virginia sheriff with a reputation cracking down on drug dealers was shot in the head at point blank range and killed outside a county courthouse today, officials and witnesses said.

Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum was shot and killed while sitting in his vehicle during his lunch break in the town of Williamson, state Delegate Harry Keith White told ABC News.

A witness told ABC News that he watched the suspect approach Crum's car, where he was known to eat lunch, and fire twice into the vehicle. The suspect then calmly walked to his truck, described as a tan Ford ranger, and drove away.

Another witness, Larry Dove, told the West Virginia Gazette he saw a man shoot Crum "right in the head."

The shooting suspect was wounded, captured and taken to a hospital, the Associated Press reported.

Crum was elected sheriff in January.

His death follows a string of high-profile assassinations of law enforcement officers and prosecutors in recent weeks, including two Texas prosecutors and the chief of Colorado's prison system.

Investigators from around the country are working to determine if there is any connection among the killings.

Since April 2, 2012, 28 police officers have been killed nationwide, according to preliminary data by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those deaths, 13 were caused by guns.

Published in National News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Thousands of people are protesting Patriot Coal Corp.'s bankruptcy reorganization plan in downtown Charleston, West Virginia.

<br><br>

   The protesters gathered at the Charleston Civic Center for a rally organized by the United Mine Workers of America. They heard from speakers including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin before walking a short distance to protest outside Patriot Coal's West Virginia offices at Laidley Tower.

<br><br>

   Last week, the House of Delegates called for bankrupt Patriot Coal to honor its pension and benefit commitments to some 23,000 retired miners and their dependents.

<br><br>

   St. Louis-based Patriot is trying shed some of that $1.6 billion liability as it restructures. Patriot contends the move is needed to save 4,000 existing jobs.

 

Published in Local News

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