Nearly 38,000 claims filed so far in West Virginia water crisis deal

By KEN WARD JR.

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly 38,000 residents and businesses in the Kanawha Valley have filed claims to be compensated as part of the landmark proposed settlement in the class-action lawsuit over the January 2014 water crisis.

The deadline for filing claims — Feb. 21, 2018 — is still several months away, and a hearing where U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. will consider whether to grant final approval of the $151 million deal isn’t scheduled until Jan. 9.

But for anyone who doesn’t want to take part in the settlement, a key deadline is coming up this Friday. Anyone who wants to “opt out” of the settlement — meaning they get no money from it but could file their own case — has to submit an exclusion request to the court postmarked no later than Dec. 8.

In the case, lawyers for residents and businesses had alleged that West Virginia American Water Co. did not adequately prepare for or respond to the chemical spill and that MCHM-maker Eastman Chemical did not properly warn Freedom Industries of the dangers of its chemical or take any action when Eastman officials learned that the Freedom facility along the Elk River in Charleston was in disrepair. West Virginia American and Eastman deny any liability. They say the blame for the crisis rests with Freedom Industries, which admitted to criminal pollution violations related to the spill.

Under the settlement, residential households — including homeowners and renters — can file a simple claim form and obtain $550 for the first resident and $180 for each additional resident. Residents also may file more detailed information about their losses — for things such as bottled water or replacement appliance purchases — if they provide proof of those expenditures on a separate type of claim form.

Businesses and nonprofit organizations can likewise obtain flat payments, based on their size, or can submit documentation of specific losses to have those recouped.

The settlement also provides additional payments to women who were pregnant at the time of the chemical spill that sparked the water crisis, residents who had medical expenses and hourly-wage earners who lost money when businesses they worked at closed because of the crisis. Government agencies also are eligible to submit claims.

More information about the settlement is available online, at www.wvwater claims.com. Claims may be submitted online at that same site, and more information also may be obtained by calling 1-855-829-8121.

Anthony Majestro, one of the lead attorneys for residents and businesses, said Monday that as of late last week, the claims administrator had received 37,971 claims. Most of those — about 36,000 — came from residents, he said, and the rest came from businesses.

As with other class-action cases, residents and businesses don’t have to have signed up with a lawyer prior to the settlement to be part of the class. Anyone who fits into the definition of the class covered by the settlement is included in the class, unless they have filed opt-out papers to exclude themselves. Filing claims gives class members more options about how much compensation they could receive.

The class covered by the case includes 224,000 residents and 7,300 businesses. Basically, it includes any business or resident who received tap water from the Elk River intake plant and any hourly-wage earner whose employer closed because of the spill and resulting water system contamination.

Exclusion notices should include the location of the residence or business at issue, identification of the position of authority for a person submitting an exclusion for a business, a statement regarding whether a separate legal claim is planned against the water company or Eastman, a signature and a date, according to a “frequently asked questions” document on the settlement website.

Exclusions should be mailed to WV Water Settlement Opt Outs, P.O. Box 4227, Charleston, WV 25364.

Class members who do not want to exclude themselves may still object to all or part of the settlement. The deadline for such objections also is this Friday. Those should be sent to United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia Clerk of the Court, Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse, 300 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at [email protected], 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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