Four executives and two other employees of the company associated with the chemical spill that poisoned drinking water for 300,000 people for weeks in West Virginia last January, including 4,000 Natives.
The leak occurred on January 9, 2014, when 5,000 gallons of a clear, colorless liquid—a foaming agent used in the coal industry that smells like cherry cough syrup or licorice—leaked into the Elk River outside Charleston. Among the 300,000 people affected were members of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, plus 2,000 more from the 6,000-member Native American Indian Federation Inc. of Huntington, West Virginia. The water outage lasted for weeks and sent at least 300 people to the hospital.
“Just a mile upstream from Charleston’s primary source of drinking water, the conditions at the Freedom Industries facility were not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a U.S. Department of Justice statement announcing the indictment. “They put an entire population needlessly at risk. As these actions make clear, such conduct cannot, and will not, be tolerated.”
The indictment charges Gary L. Southern, the 53-year-old former president of Freedom Industries, and former Freedom owners and officers Dennis P. Farrell, 58, William E. Tis, 60 and Charles E. Herzing, 63. In addition Freedom environmental consultant Robert J. Reynolds, 63 and tank farm plant manager Michael E. Burdette, 60, were also named in the indictment, as was Freedom Industries itself.
In addition to bankruptcy fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud, Southern is charged with the negligent discharge of a pollutant in violation of the Clean Water Act, negligent discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act, and violating an environmental permit, the DOJ said. His prison term, if he’s convicted on all charges, could last 68 years.
Farrell, Tis and Herzing were charged with the “negligent discharge of a pollutant in violation of the Clean Water Act, negligent discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act, and violating an environmental permit,” the DOJ said, with three-year maximum prison terms.
Among other misconduct, they allegedly failed to properly maintain the containment area surrounding the tanks at Freedom’s Elk River facility, nor did they maintain the containment area to ensure that it would hold a spill, the DOJ said. In addition they allegedly failed to properly inspect a tank that held MCHM, one of the chemicals that leaked into the Elk River and sickened thousands. They also, the government alleged, failed to institute, or even develop, a plan for preventing or controlling spills. Moreover, they neglected to “develop and implement a storm water pollution prevention plan and groundwater protection plan, both requirements of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit,” the DOJ said.
“It’s hard to overstate the disruption that results when 300,000 people suddenly lose clean water,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in the DOJ statement. “This is exactly the kind of scenario that the Clean Water Act is designed to prevent. This spill, which was completely preventable, happened to take place in this district, but it could have happened anywhere. If we don’t want it to happen again, we need to make it crystal clear that those who engage in the kind of criminal behavior that led to this crisis will be held accountable.”