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WV Attorney General to take action against business accused of price gouging

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By Linda Harris

UPDATE:

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has taken action against a Hurricane-based convenience store operator for jacking up the price of bottled water during January's water crisis, filing a six-count complaint accusing Mid Valley Mart LLC of price gouging.

The action, filed in Putnam County Circuit Court, seeks injunctive relief, along with restitution and reimbursement to consumers as well as fines in excess of $5,000 per violation.

"If you're going to increase prices more than 100 percent after a state of emergency is declared, you should be prepared for the consequences," Morrisey said. "When this crisis began, we indicated that we would be enforcing the law vigorously."

State law prohibits businesses from increasing the price of an emergency supply or essential consumer item by more than 10 percent during or for 30 days after a crisis situation. Morrisey said bottled water was deemed an essential consumer item once West Virginia American Water Co. told consumers not to use the water for cooking, cleaning, bathing or even laundry.

Morrisey's complaint alleges Mid Valley Mart LLC and its manager/owner, Achraf Assi, increased the price of gallon jugs of water to $3.39 on Jan. 10, hours after roughly 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in the coal washing process, leaked from a storage tank at Freedom Industries Etowah terminal, overran a containment area and spilled into the Elk River about a mile above West Virginia American Water Co.'s water intakes. More than 300,000 people in a nine-county area were left without usable water for a week, spawning dozens of lawsuits and sparking ongoing concerns about the safety of the water supply.

Prior to the water crisis those same jugs of water sold for $1.59.

The complaint cited a consumer who had tried to buy 18 jugs of water at Mid Valley Mart II on U.S. 60, only to be told by a clerk that he could purchase only six jugs at the pre-crisis price. The man told authorities when he returned to the same store an hour later to get the other 12 jugs he was charged $3.39 apiece.

"You cannot (let people) get away with breaking the law or price gouging," Morrisey said. "We were convinced we needed to move forward aggressively, but we've tried to give people the benefit of the doubt."

Morrisey said most West Virginians complied with the law, pointing out that some with access to potable water "opened their homes and hearts to friends, family members and strangers" so they could shower and get a warm meal. He concedes, however, "there were also some bad apples" who saw it as a chance to make money. His office logged 150-180 calls from consumers who felt they'd been victimized, Morrisey said, and in response "sent out a couple dozen letters and issued five subpoenas."

He declined to say whether additional complaints might be forthcoming, though he did say in some instances it appears to have been an "honest misunderstanding."

Morrisey, meanwhile, said Mid Valley Mart LLC kept its water prices inflated for at least a week. He's asking for an injunction, along with restitution/reimbursement to consumers and fines in excess of $5,000 per violation.

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ORIGINAL:

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is taking action against a Hurricane-based convenience store for jacking up the price of bottled water during January's water crisis.

Morrisey filed an enforcement action Friday charging Mid Valley Mart LLC with price gouging, saying the company increased bottled water prices at its two Hurricane stores by more than 100 percent after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in the nine counties supplied by West Virginia American Water Co.

WVAWC's water supply was tainted when some 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in the coal washing process, leaked from a storage tank at Freedom Industries Etowah terminal, overran a containment area and spilled into the Elk River about a mile above the regional water intakes. More than 300,000 people were left without usable water for a week, spawning dozens of lawsuits and raising concerns about the safety of the water supply.

Morrisey said Mid Valley Mart LLC kept its water prices inflated for at least a week. He's asking for an injunction, along with restitution/reimbursement to consumers and fines in excess of $5,000 per violation.