Potential class-action suit says Columbia Gas caused contamination

SPENCER – A Charleston law firm hopes a lawsuit concerning damages caused by Columbia Gas pipelines is given class-action status.

Tim J. Yianne and Harry F. Bell Jr. of Bell & Bands filed the lawsuit Oct. 17 in Roane Circuit Court on behalf of Emogene Helmick against Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation.

In the suit, Helmick seeks compensatory damages and injunctive relief for property damage caused by contamination from Columbia Gas pipelines located, among other places, on her property in Little Pigeon.

The suit says Columbia has operated a natural gas pipeline system in the northeastern part of the United States since the 1890s. Now, it has about 12,750 miles of such pipeline and 36 natural gas storage fields.

"As a result of normal pressure and temperature changes within Columbia's pipeline, constituents contained in natural gas can condense into a liquid form within the pipeline," the suit states. "This liquid, or condensate, may contain, among other things, benzene and xylene. Condensates must be removed to avoid damage to the gas compressors."

It says this condensate is removed from the pipelines at various locations.

"The most common type of liquid removal point consists of a liquid trap attached to the pipeline and a length of small-diameter pipe with an above-ground valve," the suit says. It also says there are about 15,000 of these liquid removal points.

It goes on to say the condensate was disposed onto the ground, stored in aboveground and underground storage tanks and/or disposed of in trash disposal and burn areas.

"As a result of this practice, soils along the pipeline, in the vicinity of the storage tanks, and in the trash disposal and burn areas have become contaminated with, among other things, benzene and xylene," the suit says.

Helmick is one of many property owners who owns all or a portion of property that is crossed by Columbia's Line T16 in the Geary District of Roane County.

Random scientific sampling of the soil on Helmick's property has revealed benzene and xylene, which are carcinogens.

Columbia no longer uses the line to transmit gas, but it has attempted to transfer ownership of the line for the portion of pipeline that crosses Helmick's property, according to the suit.

"However, as a condition of transferring the pipeline, Columbia has attempted to have plaintiff sign an 'Ownership Transfer of Abandoned Pipeline" contract where plaintiff makes certain warranties if she should remove any equipment, scrap or other materials," the suit states.

The complaint maintains that these warranties are a violation of the Federal Resource Conversation and Recovery Act, an actual or threatened release of hazardous susbstance under the Federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act or a violation of other environmental laws, rules and regulations.

The suit says many other property owners were coerced into signing the "unconscionable" contract. But Helmick "has refused to sign a contract that potentially places enormous liability on her as a result of the contamination" that she says Columbia and/or its predecessors has caused.

The potential class would consist of all individuals who own property in West Virginia that has been contaminated by the T16 pipeline. Excluded would be Columbia and any person, firm, trust, corporation or other entity related to or affiliated with Columbia.

"The class is so numerous that joinder of individual members is impractical," the suit states. "The exact number of class members can be readily determined from Columbia's records and/or county clerk records."

The complaint says factors that would be considered include whether contaminants have caused a diminution of property value and, if so, by how much. The amount of damages for the cost of removal and disposal of the contaminants also would be considered.

Helmick says the contaminants "have created a hazardous and dangerous living condition" on her property and that they have caused a diminution in property value.

She also claims Columbia's actions have created a public and private nuisance and that the invasion of the contaminants onto her property is a continuing trespass.

Helmick asks the court for an order certifying the suit as a class action, an order creating and implementing a court-supervised defendant-funded program to pay for the removal and disposing of contaminants from the pipelines, attorney fees, court costs – including medical monitoring administration – and other relief.

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Thomas Evans.

Roane Circuit Court case number: 07-C-79

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