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Yeager Airport added to lawsuit over Freedom spill

By Kate White, Staff writer

Yeager Airport has been added to a lawsuit that now claims the airport’s poor management of a construction project contributed to the January chemical leak that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without usable water for more than a week.

In a consolidated class-action complaint filed Friday in federal court, plaintiffs allege the airport’s runway extension project, which began in 2004, caused stormwater runoff to disturb the Freedom Industries tank farm and eventually led to the failure of the tank that leaked MCHM.

The “erosion of the tank’s foundation and the increased water on the tank site and the associated process of repeated wetting and drying of the tank bottom, which resulted from the Airport’s runway extension project and the lack of associated or adequate stormwater controls, significantly caused or contributed to the MCHM tank’s failure in January 2014,” the complaint filed by residents and businesses affected by the spill, states.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed since the coal-cleaning chemical leaked into the region’s water supply from Freedom Industries’ Etowah River Terminal tank farm on the Elk River — directly below Yeager Airport.

The new complaint also now names Triad Engineering as a defendant. That company worked for Yeager on the extension project.

The extension project was riddled with problems from the start, the complaint alleges, as logging companies were cited multiple times by the state Division of Forestry while clearing the forest and vegetation above the tank farm for implementing ways “to reduce stormwater runoff from timbering sites,” among other reasons.

The extension plan called for the movement of 1.7 million cubic yards of earth, the lawsuit states.

Also, according to the complaint, multiple citations were handed out for violating the construction permit for failure to install traps to collect stormwater runoff.

Before beginning the construction phase of the project, the airport did an extensive pre-blasting survey of the tank farm, according to the complaint, and knew that if the tanks leaked, its contents would spill into the river.

However, the airport and Triad “did not design or plan for any permanent stormwater detention or retention structures following completion of the runway extension project,” the complaint states. What stormwater controls were installed, according to the lawsuit, were inadequate to control excess stormwater caused from construction.

Mike Dorsey, director of emergency response and homeland security for the state Department of Environmental Protection, previously told the Gazette there was “no obvious stream of water coming off the hillside.”

Cleanup crews at the tank farm have had to deal with large amount of stormwater runoff coming from off the site onto Freedom’s property. However, Dorsey said that officials have looked into whether any of that runoff was made worse by construction projects at Yeager, and said, “we’re not seeing that.”

The lawsuit also names Eastman Chemical Co., which makes 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as “Crude MCHM.” It is being sued for, plaintiffs say, ignoring studies that prove the dangers of the chemical.

The lawsuit also claims West Virginia American Water and its parent company American Water Works, should have recognized the risk of having the chemical company just upriver from its intake.

Gary Southern, president of Freedom, and former Freedom president Dennis Farrell are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Dozens of lawsuit have been filed over the spill. Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection eight days after the spill, causing many lawsuits to be moved to bankruptcy court.

Some of those lawsuits that didn’t name Freedom as a defendant, in order to avoid getting tied up in bankruptcy court, have been consolidated.

U.S. District Court Judge John Copenhaver consolidated lawsuits over the spill — ones filed in federal court that don’t name Freedom Industries and ones that were moved to bankruptcy court.

Attorney Ed Hill, who is also the chairman of Yeager airport’s governing board, filed a lawsuit over the spill that’s now in federal bankruptcy court.

On Monday, Hill called the complaint against Yeager “curious” and said, “no one else has thought to claim Yeager.” He wouldn’t comment further on the lawsuit.

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


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