CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal judge gave preliminary approval Thursday to a $151 million settlement of a class action lawsuit filed in connection with the 2014 chemical spill and water emergency on the Elk River in Kanawha County.
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver gave preliminary approval to the reworked settlement between the plaintiffs and defendants West Virginia American Water and Eastman Chemical. Copenhaver scheduled a final hearing for Jan. 9, 2018.
The lawsuit was filed in the months after the January 2014 leak of the chemical MCHM from the Freedom Industries tank farm into the Elk River in Charleston less than two miles above the water company’s Kanawha Valley plant. The state issued a Do Not Drink order not long after the spill impacting more than 200,000 residents and 8,000 businesses in parts of nine West Virginia counties for several days.
Copenhaver didn’t like parts of the original settlement and ordered the parties to continue discussions. Plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Calwell said work in recent weeks has improved the settlement.
“The amount of the settlement never changed. It basically had to do with how the money would be dispersed and the amounts that would be paid to individuals and individual businesses,” Calwell said.
Water company customers who elect to stay members of the class will receive $550 for the first resident and an additional $180 for every other person living at the residence at the time of the emergency, Calwell said.
“If people have expenses that exceed that amount then a simple claim form can be completed and they will be compensated for the total amount of their documented losses. The same holds true for businesses,” Calwell said.
Businesses can receive from $6,500 to $60,000 depending on size and documented losses.
The reworked settlement makes improvements in the area of how class members are notified and the way claims can be made, Calwell said.
“There’s a great deal of money involved, real money, that there’s a very close relationship to the losses that people endured,” he said.
The plaintiffs’ case centered on allegations that West Virginia American was not prepared for the emergency the spill created. They also alleged Eastman was negligent for the lack of information it provided to Freedom Industries about MCHM. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing. Both have blamed Freedom. Freedom declared bankruptcy not long after the spill.
Calwell said it’s good to have preliminary approval for the settlement almost a year after it was first announced.
“There were a lot of legal hurdles that had to be cleared but now it’s guaranteed that folks are finally going to get a check for the trouble they went through,” he said.
Residents, members of the class, will be notified by mail. They can also visit the website wvwaterlitigation.com. The settlement administrator can be reached at 855-829-8121.
Calwell said the first $101 million is guaranteed to residents and businesses with an additional $50 million if claims exceed the initial amount.
The final hearing on the settlement will take place four years to the day of the chemical spill and water emergency.