Reading the headlines this week, you might have seen some worryingly familiar phrases: “oil spill,” “environmental disaster,” and “livelihoods at risk.” A class action lawsuit has been filed by businesses in Galveston, Texas, following a March 22 accident that led to a giant oil spill in the Houston Slip Channel. Business owners are alleging that the spill damaged business, caused property losses, and continues to cause them monetary harm as customers stay away from the area.
The oil, a type of heavy marine fuel, is said to be difficult to clean up and especially harmful to the environment.
The spill started when a collision between a barge and a bulk carrier released oil and left the barge partially submerged in the channel. The oil, a type of heavy marine fuel, is said to be difficult to clean up and especially harmful to the environment. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include bait and tackle shop owners, fishing boat charter companies, crabbing companies, and others affected by the pollution and closure of the channel. Chron is reporting that it’s not known how long the channel will remain closed, while CNN reported this morning that wildlife is already suffering, and 101 vessels are stuck in the channel with no way of knowing when they’ll be able to move.
It’s only been two months since news of the West Virginia chemical spill made headlines across the country (“West Virginia Chemical Spill Hits 300,000”) and a series of lawsuits was filed by residents and businesses against Freedom Industries. At least thirty lawsuits have now been filed in Kanawha Circuit Court, all removed to federal court. Lawyers are now arguing that the class action lawsuits should be consolidated by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to one court. Complicating matters is the fact that on January 17, just more than a week after the chemical spill polluted the Elk River, Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy. In late February, 24 cases against the company were removed to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia at Charleston.
A federal grand jury investigation has also been launched, with CNN reporting that “sources familiar with the grand jury's activities tell CNN that subpoenas have been issued requiring testimony for what one federal official confirms is a criminal investigation.”
Sadly, it may be some time before the outcome of these lawsuits is known. Twenty-five years ago, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska became, at the time, the biggest manmade environmental catastrophe in history – but it took two decades for the litigation to come to an end and the final settlement to be agreed upon. The Supreme Court ended up reducing the initial punitive damage award of $5 billion to $500 million plus interest, leaving many in the fishing community of Prince William bitter and disappointed.
Can West Virginians expect a better outcome? The situation there is different – chemicals spilled into the drinking water supply, rather than oil into the ocean – but victims face the familiar challenge of a large company and a protracted legal system. Even if the lawsuits prove successful, it may be years before a resolution is found. For now, all we can do is wait – and maybe keep checking the water.