Scant Action One Year After Elk River Chemical Spill

By Kimber Ray

Roughly one year after a coal-processing chemical spill by Freedom Industries contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents, cleanup of the site remains incomplete and disciplinary and preventative action by state and federal officials has been minimal. Even in November, a poll by local news station WSAZ found that only 50 percent of affected residents were drinking their tap water, compared to 81 percent before the spill.

Eight days after the spill, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy and, by April, company executives registered an identical company, Lexycon LLC, which in May was granted approval to purchase former Freedom properties.

Federal fines against Freedom total $11,000, and a $3 million settlement between Freedom Industries and residents affected by the spill was finalized in September using money from the company’s insurance policy. With the added expense of almost $2 million in legal fees, Freedom claims to now lack capacity to fund a full cleanup of the spill site.

A proposed agreement with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection this November would lessen Freedom’s cleanup responsibility. Under existing orders from the agency, the company must remove all detectable contamination from the spill site but, if allowed to enter the agency’s voluntary toxic cleanup program, cleanup levels can be based on potential risks of human exposure. This risk is disputed due to a lack of scientific studies on health effects of the spill chemicals. Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 17.

West Virginia American Water, the private water utility which serves residents affected by the spill, is under investigation by state authorities for potentially allowing customers to drink contaminated water due to inadequate emergency planning and response. Fourteen businesses and individuals have sued the utility and additional companies connected to the spill, including the chemical manufacturer, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15, 2015. A federal grand jury investigation against Freedom Industries is ongoing.


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