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Hope flows as West Virginia water showing signs of improvement after chemical spill

Hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents have gone more than four days without clean tap water after a chemical spill, though officials say that chemical readouts are returning to safe levels. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

The latest tests of poisoned water in West Virginia have shown that the quality is improving “in the right direction,” the state’s governor said Sunday — a hopeful sign for the 300,000 residents currently under a strict tap water ban following a chemical spill four days ago.

"We are at a point where we can see a light at the end of the tunnel," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a news conference.

But officials stopped short of saying when the do-not-use order would be lifted.

"I can tell you we’re not several days from starting to lift, but I’m not saying today," said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, which runs the water treatment plant.

The chemical spill first noticed Thursday on the Elk River has contaminated the water supply in the heart of the state, shutting down schools and businesses across nine counties, and forcing emergency agencies to truck in clean water to the Charleston region.

Lt. Col. Greg Grant of the West Virginia National Guard said two tests Sunday morning at the treatment facility show the chemical’s concentration at 0 parts-per-million for water going in and out of the plant.

Before the all clear can be given once and for all, water sample test results must consistently show that the chemical’s presence in the public water system is at or below 1 parts-per-million, the level recommended by federal agencies.

"That is a very encouraging and allows us to move forward" with the next phase of sampling and testing, Grant said.

Sixteen teams were collecting samples from affected areas in the region, and officials cautioned that the ban won’t be lifted until results were in and the state health department signs off. Communities will be given the OK on a zone-by-zone basis.

Marcus Constantino / The Daily Mail via AP

Members of the West Virginia Army National Guard, along with a member of the Belle Police Department and a volunteer, offload emergency water from a military truck to a forklift as citizens line up Saturday for water at the Belle Fire Department in Belle, W.Va.

West Virginia American Water is launching an online map to show which communities can begin using their tap water. The company will also autodial customers when the ban in their zone has been lifted. A hotline is also being made available to them.

Schools will also be closed or partially closed in six counties Monday, although officials expect most students to be back in classrooms by Tuesday.

The reliance on bottled water is taking its toll on frustrated residents who’ve stripped stores and spent hours in long lines to collect water from tankers set up by the National Guard. Until the water is deemed safe, residents have been asked not to drink, bathe and cook with the tainted tap.

The environmental emergency began Thursday morning, when the state Department of Environmental Protection began receiving complaints around 8:15 a.m. of a licorice-type odor in the tap water. It took three hours before officials found the source of the spill.

The source turned out to be the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which had leaked out of a 40,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River.

Freedom Industries didn’t report the leak to a spill hotline until 12:05 p.m. ET Thursday.

State officials said Saturday they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river; it’s not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

All told, 169 people have sought treatment at hospitals for symptoms such as nausea. Of those, 10 were admitted to three different hospitals, but their conditions weren’t serious.

Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have opened an investigation into Thursday’s spill.

According to the state DEP, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn’t produce them.

But the DEP ordered Freedom Industries to move its coal processing chemicals to a safer site and said it has 24 hours to start writing a plan on how it will clean up the spill and any soil contamination.

The company did not take part in Sunday’s news conference, and Gov. Tomblin said the state hasn’t had much guidance from the company about the chemical in question.

"Perhaps they could have been a little bit more forthcoming to offer their assistance about what problems this particular chemical could cause," Tomblin said.

Tomblin said he will work with his environmental agency chief on tightening regulation of chemical storage facilities in the current legislative session.

Most visitors have cleared out of Charleston while locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find a hot meal or a shower elsewhere. Orders not to use tap water for much other than flushing toilets mean that the spill is an emergency not just for the environment but for local businesses.

Lisa Hechesky / Reuters

Boats sit in the Elk River in front of the Freedom Industries plant in Charleston, W. Va., on Saturday.

In downtown Charleston, the store Taylor Books usually fills the 40 seats in its cafe. But the cafe was shut down by the state Department of Health on Friday because it said employees had no way to safely wash their hands before serving customers. On Saturday only three people sat in the bookstore using the wireless Internet.

Taylor Books' manager Dan Carlisle said he canceled a musician scheduled to play that night and the store was going to close five hours early.

“It’s pretty annoying,” Carlisle said about Freedom Industries’ response to the spill. “I feel like you should just be honest with people immediately.”

In a statement issued Friday, Freedom Industries said that it was working with government agencies to contain the leak, and “the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup.”

The chemical spill has forced West Virginia's residents to examine the state's reliance on the coal and chemical industries.

Coal is critical to the economy. Strong coal prices and demand proved vital to the state budget during and after the national recession, from 2009 through 2011.

In Gov. Tomblin's recent State-of-the-State speech, he touted the chemical industry, saying it was among those that grew substantially over the last year.

The spill that tainted the water supply involved a chemical used in coal processing. But it didn't involve a coal mine — and that's a point state officials are trying to convey to the public.

When asked if the emergency is one of the risks of being a state that relies heavily on the coal industry, Tomblin quickly responded: "This was not a coal company incident, this was a chemical company incident."

"It's used in processing coal, as I understand it, but obviously it was not a coal company, it was a chemical company that left the breach and the tanks that's holding this particular chemical," he said.

The coal industry, too, was saying they should not bear the blame in this case.

"This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn't cause people to point fingers at the coal industry," said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.