On the third day without clean tap water, business owners with empty dining rooms and quiet aisles of merchandise around West Virginia's capital were left to wonder how much of an economic hit they'll take from a chemical spill.

Most visitors have cleared out of Charleston while locals are either staying home or driving out of the area to find somewhere they can get a hot meal or a shower. 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 also for local businesses.

A water company executive said Saturday that it could be days before uncontaminated water is flowing again for about 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. The uncertainty means it's impossible to estimate the economic impact of the spill yet, said the leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Chemical Spill

Workers pump 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, out of a tank at Freedom Industries. (Tyler Evert/Associated Press)

Virtually every restaurant was closed Saturday, unable to use water to prepare food, wash dishes or clean employees' hands. Meanwhile, hotels had emptied and foot traffic was down at many retail stores.

"I haven't been able to cook anything at home and was hoping they were open," Bill Rogers, 52, said outside a closed Tudor's Biscuit World in Marmet, just east of Charleston. "It seems like every place is closed. It's frustrating. Really frustrating."

In downtown Charleston, the Capitol Street row of restaurants and bars were locked up. Amid them, The Consignment Company was open, but business was miserable. The second-hand shop's owner said she relies on customers who come downtown to eat and drink.

"It's like a ghost town," Tammy Krepshaw said. "I feel really bad for all my neighbors. It's sad."

'It's like a ghost town.'- Tammy Krepshaw, Charleston resident

The person she doesn't feel bad for is Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, who told reporters the day before that he was having a long day and quickly wrapped up a news conference on the chemical spill so he could fly out of the area.

"People want answers. They deserve answers," Krepshaw said.

At Charleston's Yeager Airport, a combined 7 inbound and outbound flights were cancelled. The reason for the cancellations was an agreement between the airlines and unions for flight crews and pilots that hotels meet a certain threshold of service, and the lack of water violates the agreement, said airport spokesman Brian Belcher. Arrangements were being made to house flight personnel in hotels about 65 kilometres away.

Licorice-type odour in tap water

The emergency began Thursday, when complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odour in the tap water. The source: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that leaked out of a 150,000 litre tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River. State officials said Saturday they believe about 28,000 litres leaked from the tank — boosting their estimate by more than 7,500 litres from previous days. Some of the chemical was contained before flowing into the river; it's not clear exactly how much entered the water supply.

It could take days for clean tap water to flow again. First, 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, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said Saturday at a news conference.

Thirty-two people sought treatment at area hospitals for symptoms such as nausea. Of those, four people were admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center but their conditions weren't available Saturday.

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

By Saturday morning, FEMA said it had delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or a million liters, to West Virginia for distribution at sites including fire departments.

Businesses take financial blow

There's no question businesses have been hurt — particularly restaurants and hotels, said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state's largest regional chamber of commerce.

"I don't know that it can be quantified at this point because we don't know how long it will last," Ballard said. "I'm hoping a solution by early next week so business can get back to normal."

While restaurants are having the most trouble, the effect ripples to other businesses, Ballard said. When people go out to dinner, they also shop. And restaurant workers who miss paychecks aren't spending as much money.

The Alliance is urging business owners to check their insurance policies to see if they can make claims over lost sales. It plans to hold workshops to assist businesses with those issues, Ballard said.

State officials were working Saturday on alternative sources of water that may allow restaurants to reopen. Several businesses that had arranged other sources of water were inspected Saturday.

"We will work around the clock, 24-7, and try to open ... as many businesses as possible in the next couple of days," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County boards of health.

Bottled water shortage

Authorities' efforts to provide water weren't enough to quell some residents' anger toward the company.

Patricia Mason, a retired 54-year-old teacher, searched all day Friday for bottled water, but didn't find any until the next day. She was frustrated and blamed the company.

"It seems like no one watches these companies. They get away with this all the time, and we're the ones who pay for it. We're the ones who are suffering. It's just wrong," she said.