CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday ordered attorneys in a class-action lawsuit involving a chemical spill that contaminated drinking water in West Virginia in 2014 to revise a tentative settlement.
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver criticized the proposed deal. He said he's concerned it doesn't make clear that West Virginia American Water Co. won't seek a rate increase from state regulators to recoup the costs of settling the lawsuit. Copenhaver said those costs must be paid by the company's investors and stockholders, not customers who were spill victims.
"If so, this becomes a fool's errand," Copenhaver said.
The judge also wanted language in the proposed deal to be stronger to ensure all claimants abide by it.
"Somehow the parties need to nail that down," Copenhaver said.
He told attorneys for both sides to negotiate further and return later Monday.
In January 2014, a tank at Freedom Industries in Charleston leaked thousands of gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals into the drinking water supply for 300,000 people in and around Charleston, prompting a tap-water ban for days. Businesses were temporarily shut down and hundreds of people headed to emergency rooms for issues from nausea to rashes.
More than 224,000 area residents, more than 7,300 business owners and an undetermined number of hourly "wage earners" were part of the class of plaintiffs in the suit. Copenhaver certified the lawsuit more than a year ago against West Virginia American and chemical maker Eastman Chemical.
A trial was set to start last week but was repeatedly delayed to allow for settlement negotiations. Eastman and the plaintiffs' lawyers reached a proposed settlement for undisclosed terms.
The lawsuit alleges that the water company didn't adequately prepare for or respond to the spill.
The spill prompted Freedom's bankruptcy and resulted in 30-day prison sentences for two company officials on federal pollution charges, as well as fines and probation for four others. A state law enacted after the disaster requires more inspections and registrations of aboveground storage tanks.
In September the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said the spill could have been avoided if Freedom had inspected its storage tanks and spotted two tiny holes forming at the bottom of one of the tanks.
The facility, now closed and torn down, was located 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia America's regional drinking water intake on the Elk River.