On January 9, 2014, Freedom Industries caused one of the largest chemical spills in West Virginia history. For reasons unknown at the time, over 10,000 gallons of chemical waste were emptied into the Elk River, which served as a water source for Charleston, West Virginia. For a period of roughly 12 days, residents and businesses in Charleston were unable to use their tap water and were forced to buy clean water from the store. Those who came in contact with the water reported rashes, sickness, and nausea. Freedom Industries later confirmed that two chemicals, a form of methanol known as MCHM and a form of phenyl ether known as PPH, were involved in the spill. Shortly after the spill was reported, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection began an investigation into what had caused it. They determined that the chemicals that had been released were coal cleaning agents that were produced by another company, Eastman Chemical. Shortly after reports of the spill were released, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy.
While the investigation into the accident was ongoing, a class action lawsuit was initiated against Eastman Chemical. Included in the class were Charleston residents who had been affected by the spill because their water was interrupted, they lost wages while their businesses were closed, or they suffered ill effects from the spill. The plaintiffs alleged that Eastman Chemical was negligent because it failed to properly test the chemicals that it was manufacturing to ensure their safety, and it did not warn purchasers of the coal cleaning chemicals, like Freedom Industries, of the health dangers of the chemicals or how they should be properly stored. In response, Eastman Chemicals stated that it had followed all relevant guidelines for testing its chemicals, had properly informed Freedom Industries regarding its chemicals, and was not negligent, or responsible, for the spill into the Elk River.
While the lawsuit was ongoing, the United States Safety and Hazard Investigation Board also commenced an investigation into the incident. In September 2016, they released their draft report regarding the Elk River spill and the actions that contributed to the spill. They determined that the spill, which was caused by two small holes in the tanks holding the chemicals, was the result of negligence. They noted that Freedom Industries had no records to indicate that it had ever conducted inspections of its tanks, which would have alerted it to the growing holes and likelihood of spills, and it did not have proper secondary containment systems in place to assist in the case of a spill. They further noted that Eastman Chemicals provided very limited information about the nature of the chemicals being released, which did not allow officials to respond appropriately.
Following the release of this report, the parties to the class action lawsuit have recently announced that a proposed settlement has been reached in the case between Eastman Chemical and the Charleston residents. The settlement is currently sealed, so the details are not known at this time. However, the settlement would address and resolve all of the claims raised by the class action plaintiffs. It is to be presented to U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver for approval in the coming weeks. If it is approved, the terms of the settlement will be released to the public. Although the terms are not known, news of the settlement is likely to be viewed favorably by the plaintiffs, since it helps to avoid the expense and delay of waiting for a trial.
While large-scale chemical spills in West Virginia may be a relative rarity, West Virginia residents are injured every day by the negligence of others and their failures to take the necessary safety precautions that are required of them. If you have recently been injured by another party’s bad acts, negligence, or misrepresentations, you may need the assistance of an attorney. The Wolfe Law Firm’s West Virginia personal injury attorneys have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
More blog posts: