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Freedom Industries ordered to preserve evidence at site

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge granted a temporary restraining order Monday to preserve evidence at Freedom Industries, where a chemical leaked into the Elk River.

On Monday, at least 18 lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginia American Water after a leak Thursday caused the loss of water service to thousands of West Virginians.

The lawsuits, many of which ask to be granted class-action status, have been filed on behalf of businesses forced to shut down during the state of emergency and all West Virginia American Water customers.

The order, signed by Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky, will prevent Freedom Industries from further removing possible evidence from its facility.

"Plaintiff will need to inspect defendants' facilities and premises with the aid and advice of appropriate experts. It is appropriate that the subject facilities and premises be in as close a condition as possible to their condition at the time of the chemical spill," the order states.

A hearing will take place at 3 p.m. Jan. 23 to discuss whether the restraining order should continue.

Until then, Freedom Industries must not alter or modify in any manner "any structure, tank, equipment, material or condition of" its facility with the exception of changes necessary for stopping and cleaning up the chemical spill, according to the order.

The company must also keep, among other things, documents relating to any other chemical spill or leak from each of its facilities; documents related to chemical storage policies; warnings and instructions for all chemicals kept in storage tanks at its facilities; policies and procedures for each of its facilities, and any documents generated starting Jan. 8.

The company must also keep any documents and communications between it and West Virginia American Water starting Jan 8.

On Thursday, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, known as "Crude MCHM," a chemical used in the coal preparation process, was spilled by Freedom Industries, a chemical distributor on Barlow Drive just upriver from the water company's intake.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin issued a statement Monday after the "do not use" water warning was lifted for the first customer zone. Goodwin's office has launched an investigation into the leak.

"As the immediate water crisis begins to ease and West Virginians regain access to drinkable water, I want to make three things clear. One, my office will continue working as quickly as possible to find out exactly what happened here, including the complete timeline of the release and what was done -- or not done -- before and after it," Goodwin said in the statement.

"Two, if our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable. And three, companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: If you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again."

One lawsuit was filed Monday by a family who lives near Freedom's facility and alleges that they smelled the licorice smell off and on for more than a year. The lawsuit alleges that the family, identified only by their initials, had made several complaints to the state Department of Environmental Protection about the odor.

On Monday, the State Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel issued a news release reminding the public about rules attorneys must follow.

"There are strict rules that prohibit lawyers or anyone acting on behalf of a lawyer or a law firm from direct in-person or telephone solicitation with prospective clients that the lawyer or law firm has no family or prior professional relationship.

"Additionally, a lawyer or law firm is permitted to directly solicit prospective clients by mail or by recorded communication, but it must clearly [be] designated as 'Advertising Material' and may not involve coercion, duress or harassment," the release states.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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