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Airport preparing defense in Freedom Industries lawsuit

By David Gutman, Staff writer
LAWRENCE PIERCE | Gazette
An attorney for Yeager Airport will argue that, as a government-run agency, it can’t be sued.

Yeager Airport’s newly appointed lawyer will try get a chemical-leak related lawsuit dismissed on legal grounds, arguing that, as a government-run agency, the airport cannot be sued.

Yeager’s insurance company recently appointed Clark Hill, a Pittsburgh-based law firm to represent the airport in the lawsuit which alleges that a poorly managed construction project caused stormwater runoff that disturbed the Freedom Industries tank farm below the airport.

At Wednesday’s airport board meeting, Trig Salsbery, an attorney and a board member, said the law firm was preparing a number of factual defenses for the lawsuit, but would begin with a more technical defense.

Salsbery said the airport would argue sovereign immunity, a general legal principle that says you cannot sue the state unless it consents to the suit. Salsbery declined further comment on that line of defense and an attorney with Clark Hill, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

American International Group, the airport’s insurance company, is covering the majority of the airport’s legal costs.

Salsbery said a group representing the airport had recently visited the Freedom Industries site and that they were preparing a more tangible defense based in part on the visit.

The lawsuit against the airport, filed by businesses and individuals, alleges that the chemical tank — which leaked a coal-cleaning chemical into the Elk River, contaminating the region’s drinking water — was corroded from below due to increased stormwater runoff from the airport’s runway extension project.

The airport is directly uphill from the tank farm and the Elk River.

Salsbery said the lawsuit’s argument was not supported by the facts.

“You’ve got surface water sliding down the mountain that could reach that facility, but that didn’t come from any disturbance we did during the runway extension,” Salsbery said. “That’s just surface water that’s been coming down that mountain for years and years.”

Salsbery also said there are plenty of obstacles, including several ditches, at the bottom of the hill to stop water runoff.

A preliminary investigation by the federal Chemical Safety Board found that holes in the chemical tanks “likely initiated from the interior” and that holes in the roof of the tanks likely let water inside, providing a source for corrosion.

The airport has until Aug. 20 to respond to the lawsuit.

Also at the airport board meeting, officials said they were getting closer to deals that could bring direct flights between Charleston and Orlando and between Charleston and the New York City area.

“We’ve got them up to the edge of the cliff, we’ve just got to push them off,” Brian Belcher, Yeager’s marketing director, said about negotiations with airlines for the Orlando route.

In June, airline officials attended JumpStart, a networking event for airports and airlines.

At the conference in Edmonton, Belcher said that they spoke with seven different airlines about the Orlando route, and two of them expressed serious interest.

He declined to name the two airlines, but said that United continues to express interest in a route between Charleston and Newark, New Jersey, but has so far refused to commit.

Belcher pointed out that the airport had to woo Continental for seven years and AirTran for 10 years before the airlines signed on to fly to Charleston.

Anthony Gilmer, the airport’s marketing coordinator, said they’re getting closer to the two new routes, but there’s no timetable because the airlines are selective and opportunistic.

“Close could mean six months and close could mean two years,” Gilmer said. “We know that the people want New York and Orlando, we want it too. The airlines know what we want.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.


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