Four of six chemical company officials were sentenced in February for their roles in a chemical spill that contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia in 2014, crippling the water supply of 300,000 residents across a nine-county area. William Tis, a former co-owner and director of Freedom Industries, faced up to one year in prison and fines, but was sentenced Feb. 8 to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine.
Mr. Tis was the fourth Freedom Industries executive to escape a prison sentence. Robert Reynolds, an environmental consultant with Freedom; Michael Burdette, former plant manager for Freedom Industries’ Elk River facility; and Charles Herzig, the company’s former owner and vice president, were ordered to pay fines totaling $52,500 for causing the unlawful discharge of refuse matter, the negligent discharge of a pollutant, and knowingly violating an environmental permit.
The chemical spill was first noticed on the morning of Jan. 9, 2014, when an odor similar to licorice that pervaded the area was traced to Freedom Industries’ Elk River plant, where an aging above-ground storage tank was found to be leaking a toxic coal-cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM).
The chemical leak also spilled past a secondary containment area that was supposed to prevent such a disaster from occurring and emptied into the Elk River about one mile upstream from West Virginia American Water’s intake.
By nightfall, state officials declared a state of emergency, telling residents of Charleston, West Virginia’s largest city, and nine counties served by the water company, to stop using the tap water. The advisory lasted 10 days, putting businesses in financial distress while the water sickened many residents. Even after the advisory was lifted, levels of MCHM continued to show up in water samples.
Dennis Farrell, a former Freedom president and owner, pleaded guilty in August to two environmental pollution charges. He was scheduled to be sentenced later in February. Gary Southern, Freedom’s president at the time of the spill, pleaded guilty to three environmental pollution charges and faces the harshest penalty of all the convicted men: up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines. He was also scheduled to be sentenced in February.
According to the Associated Press, prosecutors have portrayed Mr. Southern as a rich businessman who cared little about the environment or safety. “Southern appeared unsympathetic when he told reporters a day after the spill that he had had a ‘long day’ and tried to leave a news conference multiple times outside the tank facility,” the AP reported, adding that “he also drank a bottle of water in front of TV cameras.”
Freedom Industries was sentenced as a corporation Feb. 4 for negligently discharging a pollutant, unlawfully discharging refuse matter, and knowingly violating an environmental permit. Federal Judge Thomas Johnston ordered Freedom to pay penalties of $900,000, but acknowledged the company would likely never pay because it filed bankruptcy a few days after the spill.
Sources: Associated Press, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, WSAZ News Channel 3
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