Year after W.Va. chemical spill tainted drinking water for thousands, executives face charges



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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — When state inspectors arrived at Freedom Industries asking about a licorice smell enveloping West Virginia's capital city, the point person at the tank farm, Dennis P. Farrell, told them he knew nothing about a chemical leak.

He seemed to brush off cause for concern over the odor in January. It was the industry's busy season, after all, with chemical shipments coming and going.

On a brief tour, inspectors and Farrell quickly saw what was already contaminating 300,000 people's drinking water: a 400-square-foot pool of chemicals, four inches deep in some spots, had oozed out of an old aboveground tank, through a dilapidated, cracked containment wall and into the Elk River below. The company tried to stop the flow by tossing a cinder block on top of one bag of absorbent material, which failed, according to state email records.

Almost a year later, Farrell, three other former Freedom executives, the company itself and two other employees are facing criminal charges in the spill. Ex-president Gary Southern and former joint-owners William E. Tis, Charles E. Herzing and Farrell face Clean Water Act charges for their roles with Freedom. As officers, they only paid for projects that would boost revenue, or ones that addressed equipment that was broken or about to break, the federal indictment said.

The four former executives will appear in federal court Jan. 8 in Charleston.

Freedom's coal-cleaning chemicals infiltrated a water treatment plant a mile and a half downstream. After the blue-green-tinged mixture poured through people's taps, everyday life in the Kanawha Valley halted for up to 10 days because of a do-not-use order on tap water. Public confidence in the water remained shaken long afterward.

"A lot of damage was done here to citizens and residents of Charleston, and we recognize that bringing the charges doesn't undo those damages," said Cynthia Giles, Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance. "But we're sending a strong message here that if you cut corners at the expense of the health of American communities, you will be held accountable."

In a news conference the day after the spill, Southern further drew public disdain by swigging a bottle of water in front of TV cameras and lamenting about how long his day had been. He also faces federal fraud charges related to Freedom's bankruptcy, which the company filed Jan. 17.

During a tap-water ban that lasted four to 10 days, some West Virginians drove more than an hour to shower, fill water jugs or do laundry. They dumped bottled water over their heads to shower, used baby wipes for everything imaginable. The official guidance they received was, unless you're putting out a fire or flushing your toilet, don't use the tap water.

According to health officials, after the spill, more than 400 people were treated at hospitals for symptoms that matched what's expected from exposure to the chemical, known as MCHM. Vomiting, rashes and dizziness were a few.

Businesses shuttered for days, particularly restaurants. Their owners and employees filed lawsuits over lost profits and wages, and many are still trying to recoup their losses from the bankrupt company.

Per state orders, Freedom's tank farm was razed in October, including the leaky World War II-era tank with two holes, just a few millimeters each.

Southern's attorney, Robert Allen, said Wednesday that his client plans to plead not guilty and "vigorously fight the charges."

Steve Jory, an attorney for Tis and Herzing, said the indictment is "an example of faulty legal conclusions" and the charges against his clients are "baseless."

Farrell referred questions to his attorney, who didn't immediately return a telephone message.

Freedom environmental consultant Robert J. Reynolds and tank farm plant manager Michael E. Burdette were also charged in federal informations with Clean Water Act violations.

If convicted of all charges, Southern faces up to 68 years in prison, Farrell, Herzing and Tis face up to three years apiece and Burdette and Reynolds would face up to a year each. Freedom could face unspecified fines.

Herzing, Farrell and Tis owned Freedom until December 2013, when they sold it to Pennsylvania-based Chemstream Holdings for $20 million. Southern became president afterward, but he was in charge of Freedom's day-to-day operations for years beforehand, his FBI affidavit states.

Southern lied in bankruptcy court, downplaying his role with Freedom before the December 2013 sale to shield his wealth from lawsuits, according to the affidavit. He listed his net worth as $16 million in January and more than $9 million in August. The difference has seemingly "dissipated or disappeared," according to prosecutors' court filings.

The government is now looking to seize his money, his 2012 Bentley luxury car and Marco Island, Florida, home.

Since the United Kingdom citizen can fly a private plane, has few ties to West Virginia and a lot at stake, prosecutors are also requesting Southern be kept on home confinement with an electronic monitoring device.

"It's hard not to have hard feelings against these people," said Rebecca McComas of Marmet, whose family only cooked with bottled water for several months.


Associated Press writer John Raby contributed to this report.

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