At least nineteen lawsuits have been filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court in response to the January 9, 2014 chemical spill, where the company’s Charleston facility leaked MCHM into the Elk River. The claims, mainly filed on behalf of the Charleston area businesses and West Virginia American Water Company customers, name Freedom Industries, it’s CEO Dennis Farrell, and the West Virginia American Water Company as defendants. Another claim, filed against the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Resources in the state Supreme Court, seeks to compel the agencies to enforce laws that Mountain State Justice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates argue the agencies have failed to enforce.
Also in response to the spill, in an effort to restore public confidence in both the government and private water suppliers, the West Virginia Legislature recently passed and sent SB373 to the Governor. Approved 95-0 in the House, the bill provides safeguards for storage tanks and public water supplies, including new requirements for public water suppliers, including early detection technology and plans that both protect against and respond to contamination.
In addition, the bill requires stricter oversight for above ground storage tanks, including registration and yearly inspections for tanks with more than 1,320 gallons of chemical substances (but not rail cars and tanker trucks, which are regulated separately) and tighter permitting requirements for storage tanks close to public water intakes (known as “zones of critical concern”), with exemptions for oil, natural gas, and gasoline suppliers (which are not regulated separately). This covers more than 1,600 storage tanks. The bill would also require the Department of Environmental Protection to inventory the state’s above ground storage tanks in areas near drinking water supplies, and requires the Bureau for Public Health to conduct a long-term study of health effects resulting from the January 9th MCHM spill. Although lawmakers have estimated these requirements to cost roughly $150,000, the West Virginia American Water argued that the figure is closer to millions of dollars.
In light of the passage of SB373, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Resources filed a motion to dismiss the claims against them because the relief requested “has already been granted.” The Court is currently reviewing the motion. The motion highlights the absence of a provision in SB373 that would allow citizens to sue their water company, nearby chemical tank-owners, the Bureau for Public Health or the Department of Environmental Protection to enforce the provisions of the bill.