Kanawha Valley residents, businesses and workers will be able to easily obtain millions of dollars in payments from West Virginia American Water Co. and Eastman Chemical for the contamination of the region’s drinking water supply, according to detailed class-action settlement documents made public in federal court for the first time late Thursday night.
Lawyers for companies and for the victims of the water crisis that followed the January 2014 chemical spill at Freedom Industries filed detailed descriptions of the complex terms of the $151 million settlement. They asked U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver Jr. to give the details his preliminary approval, a move that would prompt public notice of the terms and the opportunity for members of the class of plaintiffs to object or to opt out of the deal.
The 220-page settlement document outlines the ability of residents and businesses to obtain uniform settlement payments by filing simple claim forms or potentially receive larger distributions by providing receipts or other proof of money spent for things like replacing hot water tanks or buying bottled water. The settlement also provides additional payments to women who were pregnant at the time of the spill, residents who had medical expenses, and hourly-wage earners who lost money when businesses they worked in closed during the water crisis.
For example, residential households that choose the simple claim form will receive $525 for the first resident and $170 for each additional resident. Businesses, non-profit organizations and government entities that choose the simple form can receive between $6,250 and $40,000, depending on their size, if they were forced to close or partly close during the crisis, and whether they are hotels. Other businesses, those that didn’t have to close, can receive flat payments of $1,850.
“It’s a very fair and adequate settlement for such a large class,” said Stuart Calwell, a Charleston lawyer who was among those representing the spill and water crisis victims. “It provides monetary compensation to the residents and businesses who had to endure that uncalled-for event.”
The filing Thursday comes six months after the parties agreed — on the eve of trial — to general terms of a deal to resolve the complicated case brought over the region’s inability to use its tap water during the “do not use” order period that followed the contamination of the Elk River supply by a spill of Crude MCHM and other chemicals from the Freedom Industries facility just 1.5 miles upstream from the water company intake.
Copenhaver had ordered that the detailed settlement documents be filed by Thursday, following a long series of closed-door meetings that the judge has held with lawyers in the case since the tentative settlement was reached and broad terms of the related agreements with West Virginia American and Eastman were made public in late October 2016.
In the case, lawyers for residents and businesses alleged that West Virginia American did not adequately prepare for or respond to the spill and that MCHM-maker Eastman did not properly warn Freedom of the dangers of its chemical or take any action when Eastman officials learned that the Freedom facility was in disrepair. West Virginia American and Eastman continue to deny any liability, and say the blame for the crisis rests with Freedom Industries, which admitted to criminal pollution violations related to the spill.
Under federal court rules, once the settlement documents are filed, the judge will determine whether to preliminarily approve the deal, a move that would then trigger public notice of the terms and the ability for residents to object or opt-out of the settlement. Details such as when the judge will rule or the timeline for filing claims and receiving payment won’t be known until the judge issues his initial ruling on preliminary approval of the settlement. Details about how to obtain claim forms will be made public on a settlement website, www.wvwaterclaims.com or are available by calling 1-855-829-8121.
“What we did today was take an important step forward in the process of getting people paid,” said Kevin Thompson, another of the lawyers for residents and victims. “And that process is going to result in $151 million being distributed to the people as soon as it can be.”