[11/20/16] ETHAN A. HUFF– Residents and business owners in Charleston, West Virginia, who suffered injuries from a chemical spill that occurred back in 2014, will soon be receiving $151 million worth of settlement payments from the two companies responsible. U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver has tentatively approved a proposal made by West Virginia American Water Co. (WVAWC) and Eastman Chemical to pay out a massive lump sum rather than face any further litigation.
Problems first arose when Eastman Chemical decided to sell a chemical known as methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, to another company called Freedom Industries, which decided to store it in a large tank near Charleston’s Elk River. MCHM is extremely corrosive, and it apparently leaked out of the storage tank and into the river, where it ended up tainting the water supplies tapped to at least 224,000 local residents, 7,300 business owners and many others.
When locals soon began experiencing eye irritation, nausea and vomiting following the chemical transfer, the cause was eventually traced back to the leaky storage tank. Implicated were West Virginia American Water Co., which plaintiffs in the later class action accused of delivering poisoned water to homes and businesses, as well as Eastman Chemical, which the lawsuit says had a duty “to warn its customer [Freedom] about storage incompatibilities.”
When the situation was identified, West Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency for nine counties throughout the state, effectively cutting off water service for about 300,000 people. Eventually the problem was resolved, but lawsuits emerged alleging negligence and failure on the part of the multiple companies involved to properly assess the risks of tank failure, as well as the tank’s close proximity to a major water source serving the state’s capitol region.
“All those people will be captured in the class,” said Stuart Calwell, one of the head lawyers for the plaintiffs , to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “It is in the best interests of the community.”
Though not an admission of guilt, settlement money at least helps
When all is said and done, WVAWC will have to pay up $126 million towards its portion of the settlement, while Eastman Chemical will be responsible for contributing $25 million. How this money will be disbursed is still being negotiated, but lawyers involved with the case say that every single individual who was affected by the spill, including everyday people who purchased bottled water and business owners who had to shutter their doors temporarily due to not having clean water, will receive compensation.
The immense pain and suffering many in the area had to endure at the hands of a negligent water and chemical company, the plaintiffs and their lawyers say, is the biggest issue at hand. And while neither WVAWC nor Eastman Chemical have admitted any guilt in the settlement, their monetary payments will at least help allay the harm incurred and diffuse the situation, hopefully encouraging the companies involved to work harder towards preventing this type of thing from ever happening again.
“A resolution through a settlement allows us and our dedicated employees to serve our customers without the distractions of ongoing lawsuits,” reads a statement issued by WVAWC.
“We worked with plaintiffs’ counsel to negotiate a global settlement to resolve all litigation, and to provide benefits and closure to the community,” another statement by Eastman Chemical reads.
The facility in question where the poison leak occurred has since been torn down, and WVAWC faces an ongoing investigation as to its handling of the spill by West Virginia’s Public Service Commission. And while local residents, businesses and wage earners are automatically included as members of the class by default, they all have the option to opt-out if they so choose, which would allow them the opportunity to file their own independent lawsuits against the two companies.