CHARLESTON – A $151 million settlement would provide an estimated $525 to each household affected by the 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the water supply for residents in nine counties.
Terms of the proposed class-action settlement were revealed April 27 in federal court documents. Attorneys involved in the case asked District Judge John Copenhaver Jr. to give his preliminary approval to the 220-page settlement.
West Virginia American Water has agreed to pay $126 million, and Eastman Chemical has agreed to pay $25 million.
“The settlement speaks for itself,” said Charleston attorney Stuart Calwell, one of the lawyers representing the class. “It’s a good settlement. It’s a lot of money, and I think it matches up pretty well with the five or six days of being without water and the subsequent concerns about it happening again.
“It was difficult litigation. It was very expensive to bring. It required numerous experts, and it required understanding of exactly what took place. The event was not just a dilapidated, rusty tank filled with MCHM. If the water company had been adequately prepared, none of this would have happened. It was utterly unnecessary, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
Customers of West Virginia American Water Company would have to file claim forms to get their piece of the settlement. Additional monies would be provided for each additional person in a household, and claimants can provide receipts for items such as bottled water and replacement hot water heaters for additional funds. Pregnant women and people who can provide proof of medical expenses related to the incident also would be entitled to additional money. The same goes for people who lost wages because their employers were forced to close because of the spill.
Businesses, government agencies and non-profit groups would receive between $6,250 and $40,000, depending on different variables, if they were forced to close. Businesses that didn’t have to close can receive a payment of $1,850.
Exact amounts could change depending on the number of claims.
In October, parties in the case agreed to the terms of the deal just before the trial was scheduled to begin. The case stemmed from an incident in January 2014 when a tank at Freedom Industries in Charleston leaked crude MCHM into the adjacent Elk River. The site was just upstream from the water company’s intake plant. Nine counties and almost 225,000 residents were affected by the incident. Eastman is the company that manufactured the MCHM and didn’t warn Freedom of all of the dangers of the chemical used to wash coal.
Now that the settlement has been filed, Copenhaver will decide to preliminary approve it. That requires public notice of the terms and gives residents the ability to opt out of the settlement.
“The judge has been very involved in every aspect and at every stage of the litigation,” Calwell said. “The settlement is based entirely on that which is proven, so one would anticipate he would find it acceptable. But, it’s not uncommon for judges to ask for changes.
“However, he has expressed his interest in getting these benefits to the class as quickly as possible. He has shepherded this through and made it move rather quickly, considering the size of this case. My guess is the court is very interested that the class receive these benefits as quickly as possible.”
If approved by the court, the firm of Smith, Cochran & Hicks will serve as settlement administrator.
Attorneys would get 30 percent of the total payments made up to the first $100 million of the settlement. After that, they would get 25 percent of the amount paid up to the remaining $51 million.
The plaintiffs are represented by Kevin W. Thompson and David R. Barney Jr. of Thompson Barney; Van Bunch of Bonnett Fairbourn Friedman & Balint PC; and Calwell, Alex McLaughlin and D. Christopher Hedges of The Calwell Practice LC.
For more information, people can visit the settlement website at www.wvwaterclaims.com or by calling 855-829-8121.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia case number: 2:14-cv-01374