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Little is known about the chemical contaminating West Virginia’s tap water

Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians across nine counties are without tap water following a chemical leak that occurred upstream of the state's largest water treatment facility. And a press conference held Friday by Jeff McIntyre, president of the West Virginia American Water Co., which provides most of the area's household water, provided few answers. Officials still don't know when the leak started, how much of the chemical spilled into the Elk River or when the water will be safe to drink again.

They also don't know much about the chemical that spilled: 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM. According to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, MCHM is used in coal preparation plants to wash coal of impurities. But McIntyre was at a loss to explain more, saying only, “this not a chemical that’s typical to be in water treatment process."

"I've been working for 25 years on water-related issues, and this is the first I've heard of this chemical," Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told Salon. That doesn't necessarily mean that its use is unprecedented, he said, but it does mean that there's little safety information available.

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