Legal leaders react to water woes

By Chris Dickerson | Jan 10, 2014

CHARLESTON -- With water contamination woes affecting Charleston and surrounding counties, some legal community leaders are taking action.

Early Thursday, a 48,000-gallon tank belonging to Freedom Industries was found to have a leaked along the Elk River, which is the water source for about 1,500 miles of West Virginia American Water Pipeline.

By Thursday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had declared a state of emergency in nine counties and ordered everyone there to not use the water for anything other than flushing toilets. Overnight, the White House declared a state of emergency allowing more help to begin.

Freedom Industries' chemical storage facility is about a mile upstream from the WVAWC plant. Residents began smelling a licorice-like odor early Thursday from the leak.

The ban on water use caused a run on bottled water at stores in the area. On Friday, watering stations were set up, and many businesses, government agencies, churches and individuals in non-affected areas were offering water to those in need.

Tom Aluise, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said Friday the leaked chemical -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol -- is harmful if swallowed. It is used to wash coal before it goes to market.

Late Thursday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey urged consumers to report any dramatic increases on the price of water, ice or other commodities in response to the state's water emergency.

Morrisey said West Virginians overcharged by any business or individual should file a complaint with his Consumer Protection Division. Morrisey's office is concerned about price gouging as a result of the water emergency in Roane, Putnam, Kanawha, Logan, Lincoln, Jackson, Clay and Boone counties.

“It is illegal for any person or entity to inflate the price of water in times of emergency,” Morrisey said. “We are hearing reports of price gouging going on already in the region. It is illegal and just plain wrong for a business to take advantage of consumers and West Virginians during an emergency.”

Morrisey said his office would use any reports filed to identify offending individuals and businesses. He encouraged consumers who paid overly inflated prices to make a copy of the receipt and attach it to their complaint.

“While our hope is that these incidences are rare, they do sometimes occur,” Morrisey said. “In those situations, we will aggressively prosecute anyone who has taken advantage of West Virginians in their time of need. We will have no mercy for businesses who try to make a quick buck by taking advantage of people.”

On Friday, United States Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office would be investigating the matter.

“Yesterday’s release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy, and upended people’s daily lives," he said in a statement. "My office and other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.

"We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”

On Thursday, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis ordered the closing of the Administrative Office and Chief Counsel’s Office of the Supreme Court on Friday because of the water issues. The Supreme Court Clerk’s Office was open to any accept filings.

The chief circuit judge of the affected counties could decide whether to close courts. Judge Jay M. Hoke did close the courts in Boone and Lincoln counties

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