Charleston Spill Yields Federal Lawsuit Against Chemical Maker

Eastman Chemical Co. (EMN), a Kingsport, Tennessee-based chemical manufacturer, was sued by West Virginia stores and residents who allege the firm concealed the cancer-causing elements of a chemical spilled into the Elk River.

The safety data sheets issued by Eastman for the coal-processing chemical hid scientific information on the risks of its carcinogenic and toxic components, according to the filing Jan. 13 in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia. The Jan. 9 spill forced commercial establishments to shut down and deprived nine counties of tap water for several days.

“The foreseeable risks of harm posed by 4-MCHM could have been reduced or avoided by reasonable instructions or warnings,” the plaintiffs said in the filing, referring to the chemical. “Their omission renders the product not reasonably safe.”

Freedom Industries Inc. and West Virginia-American Water Co. also were named as defendants. The state attorney general’s office said it has started investigating the leak, which made water undrinkable for more than 300,000 West Virginians. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said residents need answers on what happened so similar events don’t happen in the future.

Downtown Grill

The suit’s plaintiffs, who demand unspecific damages, include the operator of a grill restaurant in downtown Charleston that was shut down, near Freedom’s facility, and women nearby who were evacuated or had to be medically monitored after being exposed to contaminated water and fumes.

Eastman spokeswoman Maranda Demuth said the suit had no merit as it pertains to the company. There was no evidence from Eastman’s own studies or others it was aware of that the chemical was carcinogenic, she said in a phone interview yesterday.

In Kanawha County Circuit Court in Charleston as of Jan. 13 at least 18 lawsuits seeking group, or class action, status had been filed against Freedom and the water utility, with both accused of negligence and causing a public nuisance. The utility failed to deal promptly with the emergency and had no procedures in place to prevent chemicals from getting into the water system, according to a complaint filed Jan. 10 by Scott Miller.

Freedom Industries, formed in 1986, supplies specialty chemicals to the steel, cement and coal-mining industries, according to its website. The closely held company completed a four-way merger nine days before the leak was discovered.

The Eastman case is Vantap LLC v. Eastman Chemical Co., 14-cv-01374, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).

To contact the reporter on this story: Linda Sandler in New York at lsandler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Dunn at adunn8@bloomberg.net

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