Federal lawsuit claims company hid chemical's cancer-causing effects
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal lawsuit against the company that makes the chemical that leaked into the Elk River and left thousands of West Virginians without water for more than a week claims the company hid evidence that the chemical causes cancer.
The lawsuit filed against Eastman Chemical Company, which makes 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as "Crude MCHM," claims the company ignored studies that prove the dangers of the chemical.
An Eastman spokeswoman says that's not true and studies generated by the company prove the chemical doesn't cause cancer.
The lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of businesses shut down for days with no water and by residents who claim they were exposed to the water. Plaintiffs are also suing West Virginia American Water, Freedom Industries and its director of operations, Gary Southern.
As of Thursday, more than 20 lawsuits had been filed in Kanawha Circuit Court on behalf of businesses and West Virginia American Water customers. The federal lawsuit is the only suit that names Eastman, however.
Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal preparation process, was spilled by Freedom Industries, a chemical distributor on Barlow Drive just upriver from the water company's intake on Jan. 9.
Material safety data sheets provided by Eastman, based in Kingsport, Tenn., ignore "extensive scientific information known showing the risks of the chemical's carcinogenic and highly toxic component parts," the lawsuit states.
"4-MCHM is a combination of two very dangerous chemicals known to cause cancer and other effects, but the MSDS sheets issued by the manufacturer, Eastman Chemical Company, ignore and hide the extensive scientific information known showing the risks of the chemical's carcinogenic and highly toxic component parts," the lawsuit states.
Exposure to "Crude MCHM" has created the need for a medical monitoring program, according to the lawsuit.
Maranda Demuth, spokeswoman for Eastman, said Thursday the lawsuit had no merit and that the company isn't aware of any studies showing the chemical is carcinogenic. Demuth wouldn't provide copies of any of the company's studies or data about the potential impacts of MCHM to the Gazette during the day Thursday, but the company released them late Thursday night.
"Eastman goes to great lengths to ensure our commercial products and facilities meet or exceed regulatory standards. The EPA reviewed and approved the product for its intended use. Since the product is intended for industrial use, the EPA did not require additional testing," Demuth said in a statement.
The lawsuit also claims the water company should have recognized the risk of having the chemical company nearby.
West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the water company is focused on restoring water to its customers and wouldn't comment on pending litigation.
Neither Southern nor a representative of Freedom Industries could immediately be reached for comment. Company officials have not commented beyond a press conference by Southern the day after the leak was reported.
The federal lawsuit, which is assigned to U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver, asks for class-action status.
It was filed by Vantap LLC, which operates Vandalia Grill; Georgia Hamra, who says she had to relocate to a hotel outside of the area after the chemical leak; Crystal Goode, a Charleston resident and mother of three minor children exposed to the contaminated water; John Sarver, who operates Mousie's Car Wash; Colours Salon and Boutique LLC; and Delegate Michael Manypenny, D-Taylor, who is not a West Virginia American Water customer, but claims he was exposed to the contaminated water.
David Barney, Kevin Thompson, P. Rodney Jackson, all of Charleston, and Van Bunch, of Phoenix, represent the plaintiffs.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.