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Claims deadline looms as Freedom tanks razed

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer
LAWRENCE PIERCE | Gazette photos
Workers tear down the last of three MCHM tanks at the Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River.
Dallas Schell, of Nitro, cuts sections from the bottom of an MCHM tank.
Schell examines sections he cut from the bottom of the MCHM tank.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As crews continue this week to demolish chemical tanks along the Elk River, residents and businesses face a Friday deadline to file financial claims against Freedom Industries if they want be compensated as part of the company’s bankruptcy proceeding.

On Tuesday, workers from Freedom contractor Independence Excavating took down Tank 396, the leaky tank that spilled a mixture of the chemicals Crude MCHM and PPH into the Elk River on Jan. 9, contaminating the drinking water supply that West Virginia American Water uses for 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding counties.

Current plans call for all but four of the facility’s tanks to be cut apart and removed by the end of this week. Three of the remaining tanks are being used temporarily to store potentially contaminated storm water runoff, and the fourth was kept standing because of its location adjacent to those three.

“We’re going to get it done,” Freedom chief restructuring officer Mark Welch said Tuesday afternoon as demolition continued on the third of the site’s three MCHM tanks.

Welch conceded that there was a slight smell of licorice during the dismantling of the MCHM tanks.

“There was a little bit because there was exposed soil,” Welch said. Welch said state inspectors were monitoring the work. But with the tank demolition nearly complete, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not publicly explained what happened to its proposal for air monitoring for MCHM during that work.

Welch said that once the tanks are removed Freedom and its consultants will take about two weeks to come up with a plan for soil and groundwater testing to determine the extent of contamination. Once the testing is performed and data reviewed, the company will work with the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a final remediation plan for the site, Welch said.

“We don’t want to hurry this thing,” Welch said.

Meanwhile, residents and businesses who want to be compensated for damages from the January chemical spill have until Friday to file claims with the bankruptcy court. Information about how to file claims is available online at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s website.

According to the court, “Any person who has suffered damages, losses, or injuries arising from the Elk River Chemical Spill can file a claim. Persons who have suffered inconvenience, aggravation, and the like may have a legally valid basis for asserting claims against Freedom for compensation.”

Proof-of-claim forms, available online or at local town halls and at a variety of locations around the area, can be delivered or mailed to the Bankruptcy Clerk’s Office, Room 3200, Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse, 300 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301. Proof of claims that are hand-delivered or mailed must be received by the Bankruptcy Clerk’s Office by 5 p.m. Friday. Forms filed online are due by 11:59 p.m. Friday.

For more information about filing claims, residents and businesses can contact James Lane Jr., the court-appointed claims agent for the Freedom case, at 866-245-0312, or by email at claimagent@elkriverwvspill.com.

As of late Tuesday morning, more than 740 claims related to the leak had been filed for a total of $20.2 million, Lane said.

Lane said that the recent announcement of a proposed class-action settlement with Freedom Industries over leak damages does not mean residents and businesses should not file claims in the bankruptcy.

“Creditors should not act — or decide not to act — on the assumption that the proposed settlement is a done deal,” Lane said. “The proposed class-action settlement has not been approved by a court.”

Lane explained that at some point Freedom Industries will be filing a plan of reorganization with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson. That plan will outline proposals for how money and assets of the company will be used.

“Only those spill claimants who file proofs of claim will have the right to object to a plan and to vote for or against confirmation of a plan,” Lane said. “In this sense, filing a proof of claim is similar to registering to vote.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.


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