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Witness to a Chemical Spill: UM Carey Law students work in West Virginia, experience chemical spill

Student Report by: Shannon Frede (1L), Jennifer Cameron (1L), John Gustafson (1L), and Christine Wang (1L)

Since 2009, every winter break the Maryland Environmental Law Society (MELS) sponsors students to go work at the law firm of Thompson Barney PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia on the banks of the Kanawha River.

The “Assignment Appalachia” project was started by Elizabeth Lyon ’11, who currently is an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Wyoming. The initiative, staffed, run, and funded completely by MELS students, is intended to give students first-hand legal experience, both in the issues at stake for residents and how our environmental laws work (or sometimes don’t work) in practice.

This year, while we were out on Assignment Appalachia, approximately 10,000 gallons of a chemical used to treat coal (4-methylcyclohexane menthol or “MCHM”) spilled into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, fouling the water supply for approximately 300,000 West Virginia residents and garnering national attention. The evening of the spill, we worked with attorneys developing notice letters and a class action complaint while witnessing first-hand the effects of a chemical spill on a community.

We got in on Sunday night, January 5, and went to dinner with the two firm lawyers (Kevin Thompson and Dave Barney), a few legal aids, and friends of the firm. Everyone was very welcoming as the law firm staff and attorneys shared past experiences with UM Carey Law students.

The next couple of days, we worked on discovery and got to sit in on some depositions in a toxic tort case. Students went with attorneys on a two hour trip into the mountains to attend a community meeting addressing water well pollution from improperly reclaimed coal mines. The test results and types of chemicals found in the water were read aloud to the assembled community. They included varying levels of lead, arsenic, manganese and sulfates (among others). Some days the water is colorless and odorless, some days it looks like the photo on the left, taken in the small building where we had the meeting.

On Thursday, January 9, we went to Mingo County, WV to meet with a retired West Virginia judge. After our meeting we learned about a community rehabilitation initiative and toured its facilities in Williamson, a coal town where residents face social, economic, and health issues. We toured some sustainable Williamson initiatives and did some gardening in the Williamson community garden.

On the way home we stopped by a desecrated cemetery on a hill side, the subject of another Thompson Barney suit against a coal company which, rather than taking the time and expense to properly remove its equipment from the steep mountain side, decided to drive through the cemetery. 

When we returned to the office of Thompson Barney, we were ready for dinner, a hot shower, and bed. It was not to be. As we walked up the steps, a neighbor called out, “Don’t drink the water!” The same report was made to us inside, with greater detail—we were not to use the tap water for drinking, bathing, or cooking as there had been a chemical spill in the Kanawha River, the office’s waterfront, and water supply.

When we stepped back outside, we noticed it—an unmistakable licorice odor. The state required all restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in Charleston and the surrounding counties to close.  We weren’t even supposed to wash our hands or brush our teeth with the water.

Needing water and food for the evening, we drove to the local Kroger. While driving, Thompson began to develop a litigation strategy to address the harm to various area businesses and residents. Fired up about the real, time-sensitive work we were about to do, we raced through a chaotic Kroger scene, grabbing plenty of frozen food and beer to last the evening.

People were fighting over bottled water; police officers did their best to distribute the scarce supplies equitably and to maintain the peace. Fortunately, we were able to get sufficient water for the office. 

Upon returning to the law office, we were enlisted to research the events as they unfolded, estimate the potential effects, develop Notice of Intent to Sue letters, and ensure all required parties received the letter.

The Thompson Barney staff assigned us each an area of legal research which included the applicable state statute, the West Virginia Hazardous Waste Management Act, looking at similar complaints from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and poring over census information.

We then combined our drafts to include the research we each conducted and submitted them to Thompson, who made corrections and sent the letters out the following morning. Much of the research and work we performed also went into a federal class action complaint on behalf of residents and business owners.

We came away from the trip with only a fraction of understanding of what West Virginians were experiencing (we left Friday afternoon, while it would be a week before water was restored for the people affected by the chemical spill). First-year student Christine Wang noted:

"I think the best part about the whole trip was meeting the people in the communities. In all honesty, I didn't know what to expect in meeting West Virginians. I have a high school friend from West Virginia and her impressions were not the most flattering to say the least. The people I met while on the trip, from my hosts to their clients to the Mingo County judge, are good hearted, gracious people. Meeting them reminds me of the importance of experience, the good a lawyer can do for a community, and the reasons why I want to be a lawyer."

We all share Christine’s sentiments. Experiencing an environmental disaster, thinking about what this disaster means to hundreds of thousands of people and getting to work on a project to address the harm inflicted on an entire community is a vivid reminder of why we are in law school, the power of the law and the responsibilities lawyers have in our society.


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500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Admissions: PHONE: (410) 706-3492 FAX: (410) 706-1793

Copyright © 2018, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved