CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’ll be next month at the earliest before an up to $151 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against West Virginia American Water Company and Eastman Chemical for the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill is finalized.
On Tuesday’s 4th anniversary of the spill, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver raised no objections to settlement, calling it “remarkable” in its support, but opted to delay finalization as he awaits more information from the guardian at litem and claims administrator in the case.
The next hearing date in what attorneys have said is a “challenging, difficult case” is set for Feb. 1.
“I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to wrap up it up Jan. 9, the anniversary day, but I understand that and we’re just a month away,” said Crystal Good, the lead plaintiff in the case involving thousands of West Virginians in parts of nine counties.
Four years ago Tuesday, a spill of MCHM, a coal cleaning chemical, from a rusty, leaking water tank at the Freedom Industries site on the Elk River turned tap water unusable and sent a scent of licorice through the water lines for customers of West Virginia American Water Company.
Joy Gunnoe, president of Gunnoe Farms, is one of the business owners involved in the case which deals largely with the response to the spill.
“When you can’t turn the water faucet on and you’re a food manufacturer, it greatly impacts you. I was out of business for two weeks,” she said.
As of Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs reported more than 50,000 claims from residents and businesses were already in the system — a rate representing more than 40 percent of the potential full class size and four times the typical response rate in such case, attorneys said.
New outreach efforts, they told Copenhaver, were in the process of being launched under a “claim stimulation program” to reach the many more who could qualify for a share of the settlement money via television and internet ads, new direct mailings and e-mails.
Nonprofits were also being targeted and workshops were being scheduled, including one from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.
In part, those outreach efforts came in response to a request from Janet Thompson who attended Tuesday’s hearing.
“I was concerned about people who, maybe, no longer lived in those residential areas and the homeless, (those) on drugs, maybe evicted, children, sleeping under bridges, in shelters or people who couldn’t read and write needing help with the forms,” she said.
The claim filing deadline is Feb. 21.
More information is available at the settlement website at www.wvwaterclaims.com.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the claims administrator estimated those who have submitted or will submit “simple claim forms,” as opposed to those with individual damage claims, could see payments within 90 days of that Feb. 21 date.
Despite “around the clock” review efforts, no specific target date for payments was provided because of current unknowns about the total number of claims that’ll be filed before the deadline.
More important than the money that will be distributed, though, said Kevin Thompson, class counsel, are the steps that have been taken in the past four years to prevent future water emergencies.
“The powerful and the rich, it’s probably going to take a few more smacks before they learn their lesson. Public officials have learned their lesson. The public has learned their lesson, that they’ve go to watch out where their water comes from,” Thompson said.
“Are we safer today? The site at Freedom can no longer threaten this city.”
He cited the water storage levels being reported by West Virginia American Water Company on Jan. 9, 2018 — the kinds of reserve supplies that were not available on Jan. 9, 2014.
Such supplies would have allowed the closure of the water intake at the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant until the Freedom MCHM passed.
“Those tanks that you see all around here, they’re full of water, and that’s our main protection — the reserves — to hold that perimeter,” Thompson said. “We’re safer now, but it wasn’t easy.”