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Tap water may be out for days after W.Va. spill

Lisa Hechesky / Reuters

Residents pick up drinking water at the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, on Friday.

Tap water in nine West Virginia counties continues to be off-limits, the governor said Saturday evening, as residents spent a third day unable to drink from the faucet or bathe following a chemical spill.

“We will let you know as soon as the water company lifts the ban,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference. “Please remain patient and keep checking on your neighbors.”

Tomblin said officials will continue testing the water supply and purging the system, after nearly 800 people reported symptoms by Saturday afternoon.

A chemical leak means West Virginia residents cannot drink, bathe or use their tap water for an indefinite period of time. NBC News' Luke Russert reports.

“The chemical leak is unacceptable and must be cleaned up as soon as possible,” Tomblin added.

The National Guard said tests administered on the water on Saturday showed the contamination level was decreasing but that the water was not yet safe to use, reported NBC affiliate WSAZ

“I would expect that we are talking days” before the water is safe, said West Virginia American Water's president, Jeff McIntyre.

The state's poison control center had logged 787 human exposure calls and 54 animal exposure calls since the massive leak sparked a tap-water ban for 300,000 residents, said the director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman.

Many of those were from people experiencing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, skin irritation or rashes in “varying degrees of severity," Scharman said. 

The center — which called in staff from vacation, recruited volunteers and put workers on 16-hour shifts — recommended that only a few callers go to the emergency room because most of the symptoms can be treated at home. 

At least 90 people showed up at hospitals, though the vast majority of them didn't require emergency treatment, Scharman said. As many as five people have been admitted. 

The West Virginia American Water Co. announced Thursday that its water supply had become contaminated, after a leak from a Freedom Industries storage tank about a mile upstream on the Elk River sent a strange licorice-like smell wafting through the streets in Charleston, the state capital.

Tomblin declared a state of emergency in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties after the spill of up to 5,000 gallons into the Elk River. 

"If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. At this time, I do not know how long this will last," Tomblin said Friday.

"If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on the way." 

Officials said Saturday the governor had requested more bottled water from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Distribution centers continue to remain open.

Charleston, W.V., residents are awaiting word as to when their water will be safe again after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River.

On Friday, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in the nine counties authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to provide disaster relief.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson spoke with Tomblin on Friday to express concern and confirm that response efforts were adequate, according to FEMA.

The West Virginia National Guard was enlisted to dispense bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the affected counties, as the feds opened a probe into the circumstances surrounding the spill. 

The U.S Chemical Safety Board announced Saturday that a team would arrive in West Virginia on Monday to investigate what led to “a leak of such magnitude.”

Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he was pleased with the safety board’s quick response. “I remain committed to keeping those affected safe and secure, and making sure corrective actions are taken so this does not happen again," Rockefeller said. 

The leaked product is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation. 

The chemical compound is used to rinse coal. It’s a colorless oily liquid that smells like black licorice. Methylcyclohexane can be dangerous in high concentrations, but generally causes eye, skin and throat irritation, trouble breathing and dizziness or drowsiness if people are exposed, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

It can cause pneumonia if it’s breathed deep into the lungs and nausea if it’s swallowed. The effects of prolonged exposure aren’t clear.