CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said West Virginia American Water Co. customers should decide for themselves whether to consume their tap water.
Thousands remain wary after the Jan. 9 chemical spill, which sent at least 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in the preparation of coal, into the water system.
"It's your decision. If you do not feel comfortable in drinking or cooking in this water, then used bottled water," Tomblin said Monday afternoon.
"I'm not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don't use it."
Tomblin made the statement after discussing proposed legislation he says will increase oversight of chemical facilities like the one owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River.
Earlier in the day West Virginia American Water Co. President Jeff McIntyre repeated his confidence that water now coming from the company's treatment facility is safe. He drank water from the tap at the treatment center in front of several reporters to show his faith in the safety of the water.
The governor also reiterated his trust in the level set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning how much crude MCHM remaining in the water can safely be consumed.
"We've been in this thing for 11 days. It's a very complicated issue. I'm not a scientist, you know. I have to rely on the best information that I have," Tomblin said.
"My major concern for the last 11 days has been the health and safety of our residents."
Officials believe the chemical started leaking the morning of Jan. 9 from a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries. After the chemical leaked through a hole in a storage tank, an unknown amount seeped through an old concrete wall and into the Elk River.
A West Virginia American Water Co. treatment facility that sends water to about 300,000 people sits 1.5 miles downstream from the spill. The company issued a do-not-use advisory for at least 100,00 customers within hours after the leak.
Although that advisory has been lifted for all of the affected area, there could still be issues.
The water company orchestrated a system where different areas were allowed to start flushing potentially contaminated water out of their pipes. Some people still haven't done that, said Andrew Whelton, a professor from the University of Southern Alabama.
Whelton arrived in the area Thursday with a team to study aspects of the leak. He is concerned some people still haven't flushed their pipes, or don't understand the importance of the process.
He said people should continue to flush their systems until they can no longer smell the telltale black licorice odor of the chemical in their water. People should open their windows when they do this flushing, he said.
The state will continue to test water in the area until no amount of the chemical is detected, Tomblin said. Testers are now looking for smaller amounts of the chemical in the system, following last week's advisory from the CDC that pregnant women should use bottled water until no amount of the chemical remains in the tap water system.
With that work ongoing, Tomblin said West Virginia is still under a state of emergency.
"I plan to keep it in effect for some time," Tomblin said.
"We don't know what's going to happen, so we assured the public that we will continue to test, and to make sure that our water systems are safe as the CDC requirements have advised us they should be."