As the last of the tap water use bans were lifted for residents of West Virginia, the company whose coal-processing chemical had spilled into the Elk River filed for Chapter 11 protection under U.S. bankruptcy laws.
The ban was lifted on Saturday January 18 for the final two percent of the 300,000 people affected for all but pregnant women, who were advised to continue avoiding drinking from their faucets for the time being, Reuters reported. But 100 of the 400 who had been treated in 10 hospitals since January 9, when the spill occurred, had sought help in the past two days, Al Jazeera reported on January 19.
Nearly 4,000 American Indians were among those affected by the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which filled the air around Charleston, West Virginia, on January 9 with the sickly-sweet smell of licorice or cough syrup and turned their taps’ emissions oily. The chemical is used in coal processing, a mainstay of the state’s economy.
At least 7,500 gallons of the chemical leaked into the water supply, according to Bloomberg news. About 1,500 of the indigenous people affected by the tap water ban were from the state-recognized Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia and another 2,000 were from the 6,000-member Native American Indian Federation, Inc.
Freedom Industries Inc., the company whose tank sprung the leak, declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11, which “halts most litigation, forcing plaintiffs to vie with other creditors for a share of a company’s assets,” Bloomberg explained. At least two dozen lawsuits have been filed so far, the news wire said.
Another contributing factor to the bankruptcy declaration was that vendors demanded cash payments, Reuters said. Under Chapter 11 provisions, a company can continue operations while reorganizing without being subject to creditor demands.
Freedom Industries is just one of many companies that American Indians and environmentalists said have been polluting West Virginia water for years, thanks to lax regulations.
“From a Native American perspective, it is devastating and gut-wrenching,” said LaVerna Vickers, tribal secretary of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, to ICTMN after the spill. “People are just assuming nothing bad will happen, and we are the disposable people here.”