West Virginia State University has sued Dow Chemical and former operators of the Institute chemical plant, alleging that the facility has contaminated the groundwater under the university’s campus.
University officials insist the contamination poses no health risks — the campus does not use groundwater for its drinking water. It says the pollution threatens campus development plans and, once made public, now harms State’s local and national reputation.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Kanawha Circuit Court, seeks to force the companies to clean up the contamination, prevent future migration of the chemicals and compensate the university, a historically black institution, for harm to its image in the public and potential students.
During an afternoon news conference on campus, West Virginia State President Anthony Jenkins said all efforts to convince Dow to resolve the matter have failed but that he hopes the filing of the lawsuit will change that.
“It is my hope that Dow will come to the table and take full responsibility for the mess it created,” Jenkins told reporters.
The legal complaint, filed by attorneys Sam Hrko and Steve Ruby of the firm Bailey and Glasser, states: “Dow — a global chemical giant with $48 billion in annual revenue — seeks to force the costs of its pollution upon a small institution whose modest resources are already fully consumed by serving its students and its community. The law has no place for such greed and injustice.”
Officials from Dow and the other companies named as defendants did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
University officials and lawyers say three contaminants have been found at “elevated levels” in the groundwater 15 to 50 feet beneath the campus. The chemicals are 1,4-dioxane, 1,1-dichloroethane and chloroform. It was not clear which of the various chemical units that operated over the years at the plant led to the groundwater contamination.
University officials say they learned of the contamination about four years ago, when they took ownership from the state of the former West Virginia Rehabilitation Center, located between the campus and the chemical plant. Dow performed groundwater sampling as part of an effort to close out one of its old permits, officials said, and informed the university when that testing turned up some issues.
Because the university’s tap water comes from West Virginia American Water’s Elk River facility, the concern with the campus groundwater contamination is potential exposure to humans through vapors that could travel up through the soil. In materials distributed and posted online Thursday, the university said testing has found some chemicals above screening levels that would require more investigation, but it has not discovered levels that create any health threats to students, faculty, staff or others on campus.
“Although the university must be fairly compensated for the damage Dow has done, I want to assure you that everyone here can continue learning, teaching and serving without risk of interruption,” Jenkins said in a letter Thursday to the university community.
Jenkins, who became State’s president in July 2016, offered no regret for the university having waited nearly four years — until Thursday’s announcement — to inform the campus community about the contamination. He said the administration waited to reveal the issue until it had conducted enough testing to be convinced there was no health concern and to be able to communicate that belief with its initial notification to students, faculty, staff and students.
Jenkins said the university and its legal team also spent a lot of time working with Dow, in the hope that the parties could reach an agreement on some sort of remedial action.
While Jenkins said the university had believed Dow had the plant operations under control, some State faculty and previous administrators have been major critics of the Institute plant, because of a rocky history that included two fatal explosions in the past 25 years and a long battle over the plant’s stockpile of methyl isocyanate, the deadly chemical that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, in 1984.
Six years ago, then-plant owner Bayer CropScience eliminated MIC manufacturing, use and storage at the plant following a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that was highly critical of plant operations and a major change in the company’s global marketing strategy.
Union Carbide, once a major institution in the Kanawha Valley, operated the Institute plant from 1946 until it sold the site to Rhone-Poulenc, a French firm, in 1986. Several other companies, including FMC Corp., operated units at the site. Bayer CropScience operated the plant from 2002 until it sold it to Dow — which had, in the meantime, merged with Carbide — in 2015. All of the various owners and operators are named as defendants in the lawsuit.