Mani, Ellis & Layne files first class-action suit in response to - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Mani, Ellis & Layne files first class-action suit in response to chemical leak

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The aftershocks from the chemical spill that tainted water supplies in a nine-county region are just beginning for Charleston-based Freedom Industries, now the subject of a federal investigation into the cause of the leak.

The chemical, 4-methylcycolohexane methanol, leaked from a 48,000-gallon storage tank, overran a containment area and spilled into the Elk River Jan. 9, contaminating the water supply to West Virginia American Water Company customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties. State officials say as many as 100,000 WVAWC customers -- roughly 300,000 to 400,000 people -- were affected by the spill.

4-Methylcycolohexane methanol is used in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation.

On Jan. 10, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said federal law enforcement agencies are already looking into the cause of the chemical spill, while at least one class-action lawsuit had already been filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court at the start of business on behalf of restaurants and other food service providers damaged by the mandatory closure order.

The director of West Virginia University's Bureau of Business & Economic Research, meanwhile, said it's too soon to try to calculate the economic impact from the spill, though he did say that, given the strains on government budgets in general, "the last thing we need is additional expenses incurred in an emergency cleanup."

"I couldn't begin to speculate on a dollar figure without knowing more," Dr. John Deskins said. "We don't even know how long (the water shutdown) is going to last. Without knowing that and other facts, it would be impossible to put a dollar figure to it."

Goodwin, though, said the release of "a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region's economy, and upended people's daily lives."

"My office and other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release," Goodwin said. "We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover."

By 7:59 a.m. Charleston-based Mani Ellis & Layne had already filed a class action lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court to recover revenues EJ&K Enterprises, South Hills Market & Cafe and others in the food service industry lost because of the mandatory shutdown order issued after the spill. The Sutter Law Firm PLLC is co-counsel in the class action.

EJ&K Enterprises, owners of the Bear's Den at 405 Capitol St., and South Hills Market & Cafe, 1010 Bridge Road, are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages attorney fees and court costs on behalf of the food service industry, which Attorney Jonathan Mani said includes convenience store operators with food bars.

Based on early reports, he figures there could be more than 500 businesses in the Kanawha area affected by the water loss.

"We won't know the extent of damages until this state of emergency is over and they're allowed to be in business again," Mani said. "My understanding is that it will be at least 24-36 hours from now before they're allowed to be open again. Frankly, I think that's a conservative estimate."

Likewise, he said at this point it's difficult to gauge the economic impact to the food service community.

"We're talking about lost profits, lost business, damage to goodwill, and any out-of-pocket monies people spend on the back side to do things like flush lines and clean ice filters for refrigerators, things of that nature," he said. "It's very difficult for these businesses.

"They're already in a situation where the economy is on the rebound, shall we say. (Imagine) how devastating a couple days of lost profits can be to a small business."

Deskins, meanwhile, said the longer the water supply is deemed unusable, the bigger the hit to the state and local economy.

"It's so uncertain right now, because, at least to my knowledge, there's very little information on how soon the ban will be lifted," he said. "Certainly, it's going to be a major problem for hotels and restaurants, places like that within the affected region. It will be devastating for those regions until the ban is lifted. And government is certainly incurring costs addressing the problem. Government budgets are already tight, it's just another strain on the public budget."

He said it's also too soon to gauge the short- and long-term impacts to the chemical industry itself.

"I will say that chemical industry is very important to the state, it's the second largest exporter (in West Virginia)," he said. "The chemical industry exports a lot of products, so if that industry suffers, it could impact the state as a whole -- but that's just a potential impact, we don't know for sure."

Down the road, he said there's always the potential for new, more stringent regulations which also could prove costly to the industry.

"Let's hope the ban is lifted in 24-36 hours," he said.