As water returns in West Virginia, residents add up economic costs

  • Article by: MARK DRAJEM , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: January 15, 2014 - 6:45 PM

Estimates of lost wages and commerce vary, but nevertheless, “things are going to turn back to normal.”

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Jonathan Steele, owner of Bluegrass Kitchen, talked about opening his restaurant after the chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va. He said he is preparing dishes with bottled water.

Photo: Steve Helber • Associated Press,

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– It took four days, but the Roadrunner Grill in nearby Nitro resumed serving hot bologna sandwiches Tuesday for the first time since being shut by a chemical spill that polluted the area’s water.

“We are just waiting on the people,” said the Roadrunner’s owner, Belinda Hawley, as she looked out over her dining room with just two customers. “I’m open, and it’s better than not being open.”

The Jan. 9 spill of a coal-processing chemical into the Elk River prompted the largest “do-not-use” order issued by West Virginia American Water Co., affecting 300,000 residents in nine counties surrounding Charleston, the state’s capital. Service was starting to be restored as of Monday, leaving residents and businesses to take stock of the economic damages.

The picture is mixed. Lawyers who are signing up clients for class-action lawsuits say the costs in lost wages, revenue and other economic harm could top $500 million. They’ve already filed more than a dozen cases against Freedom Industries Inc., the company that owned the tank that leaked into the river, or West Virginia American Water, a subsidiary of American Water Works Co., the largest U.S. water company, and chemical maker Eastman Chemical Co.

Independent researchers say that while individuals have suffered, the lawyers’ estimate probably exaggerates the effects on the region when purchases were deferred or pushed to areas not affected by the water ban. The daily economic activity in the Charleston area is $35 million, not a huge amount of the state’s annual output of $55 billion, said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance.

“And this didn’t negatively impact every business,” Ballard said. “Things are going to turn back to normal.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that tests by the company at the water treatment plant found no presence of the chemical that triggered the water ban. As of Wednesday, water was cleared for 51,000 homes and businesses — roughly half the customer accounts — to use.

That’s little solace to small-business owners, waiters and barbers who lost income as businesses and schools were shut by county health officials..

“Everybody is looking at the water issue, but the economy and ability of people just to survive is being ignored,” said Chris Keeney, who lost wages after the Charleston restaurant where he works as a cook was shuttered for four days. “How am I going to pay my rent?”

Campaign for tips

The United Way announced a campaign to raise money for workers such as Keeney. Legislators who work in the Capitol urged customers to “Turn Up the Tips” for servers at local restaurants that had been closed.

The Greater Cincinnati Water Works, which serves 1.1 million people, announced Tuesday it was closing its intakes from the Ohio River — which is fed by the Kanawha and Elk rivers — until the spilled chemical passes. The plant will use its two-day supply of treated water and a groundwater treatment facility as needed.

Eastman Chemical of Kingsport, Tenn., was sued Tuesday in federal court in Charleston by residents who allege the company concealed its cancer-causing elements. Eastman spokeswoman Maranda Demuth said the company knew of no evidence that the chemical was carcinogenic.

Every company that could be sued has a rule book, and it might be liable if it could be proved that the company didn’t follow its guidelines, said Daniel Becnel Jr., a Louisiana lawyer who sued BP on behalf of victims of the massive 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lawsuits could also be lodged against the city if it didn’t follow guidelines for handling the emergency and dispersing the vapor, and people ended up in the hospital, said Becnel, who isn’t involved in the cases in West Virginia.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection checked the Freedom facility in 1999 and 2002 because it stored petroleum products, spokesman Tom Aluise said. The department’s division of air quality also visited in April 2010 after a resident complained about a licorice odor that “leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” according to a state report.

No violation was found, and the state also checked in 2012 whether an air permit was needed, Aluise said.

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