News of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal may have pushed it from the headlines, but a massive chemical spill in West Virginia last week left more than 300,000 residents without clean drinking water. It also closed restaurants across nine counties. The spillage occurred when chemicals used in coal mining leaked into the Elk River from a container that was allegedly overdue for repair and/or replacement. More than 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), used to separate coal particles, are thought to have leaked into the river by the time the plant’s operator, Freedom Industries, discovered the leak on January 9. Since then, residents across West Virginia have been warned not to drink or bathe in water and restaurants and other food servers were ordered to shut down.
Lawsuits claim that Freedom Industries negligently and recklessly breached its duty.
Sadly, hundreds of residents in affected counties fell ill, with some hospitalizations reported. MCHM, it seems, contaminated the public water supply before officials were able to alert residents. Freedom Industries is currently facing accusations that the company detected the leak at 10:30 AM on the morning of January 9 but didn’t actually alert state officials until several hours later. MCHM is detectable by a distinct licorice smell, and residents have since reported such a smell coming from their water before they were warned about the dangers.
With containment and treatment efforts now in place, January 13 saw the first water bans lifted. However, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents have suffered severe restrictions to their water supply, including drinking, cooking and bathing, while many are skeptical that the water is now safe to drink
A class action lawsuit has now been filed by residents and businesses seeking compensation for their exposure to the toxic MCHM. The lawsuit’s also seeking compensation for economic damages suffered in the aftermath of the chemical spill.
Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Clay, Roane, Cabell, and Jackson County businesses were all required to shut during the chemical leak, and the lawsuit is seeking reimbursement for lost revenue and expenses incurred during the crisis. Individuals are also asking for a public health monitoring program following the potentially widespread exposure to MCHM, which contains known carcinogens.
Freedom Industries is also accused of acting negligently in failing to contain the chemical, while West Virginia-American Water faces allegations that it failed to adequately monitor the water supply. Related lawsuits claim that Freedom Industries “negligently and recklessly breached its duty by causing the chemical leak and permitting and/or allowing the unlawful release of the chemical into the Elk River,” the West Virginia Record reports.
In the latest twist, Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday – perhaps in an attempt to shield itself from liability lawsuits, which may pause while a federal judge determines the order of litigation. The company has also used the filing as an opportunity to hypothesize – read, spread the news – that “a local water line break [caused] the ground beneath a storage tank at the Charleston facility to freeze in the extraordinary frigid temperatures in the days immediately preceding” Businessweek reports. Convincing? That’s for the courts to decide.
If you were affected by the chemical spill in West Virginia, feel free to share your story in the comments below. Do you think Freedom Industries is making excuses? Or was the weather a factor?