West Virginia begins lifting water ban, lawsuits pile up

West Virginia has begun lifting the ban on using water in certain areas of the state after a chemical spill last week contaminated the water supplies of about 300,000 people.

West Virginia American Water – a subsidiary of American Water (NYSE: AWK) and the state's largest water utility – issued a statement on Monday announcing that the process of lifting the 'do not use' order on water had begun.

"The ban is being lifted in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system is not overwhelmed by excessive demand," the company wrote.

The company published a map showing which areas were in the clear.

West Virginia water

As of Monday afternoon only a small section is blue | Map from West Virginia American Water, click here for updated versions 

West Virginia governor Earl Tomblin declared a state of emergency after discovering the spill late last week.

As the chemicals leaked into the Elk River, the government and water utility told those in affected areas to stop using tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing or bathing.

A chemical manufacturing plant owned by Freedom Industries is responsible for the spill. The agent that caused the spill – 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM – is used in coal processing.

"Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries' first priority," the company wrote in a news release on Friday.

"We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities, including the DEP, Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers and Homeland Security, and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue."

According to the Wall Street Journal, the storage facility in which the chemicals were held was sitting upstream from the area's largest water-treatment palnt and "was subject to almost no state and local monitoring."

The Journal also reported that "before last week's spill, a state regulator said environmental inspectors hadn't visited the site since 1991."

United States Attorney Booth Goodwin has launched an investigation.

In a statement published Monday, Goodwin said his office would "continue working as quickly as possible to find out exactly what happened …  including the complete timeline of the release and what was done—or not done—before and after it."

"If our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable … companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: if you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted," the attorney added. "Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again.”

But Goodwin isn't the only lawyer probing the spill. At least a dozen lawsuits have already been filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginia American Water, according to Sunday Gazette-Mail.