4 indicted in West Virginia chemical spill case

Author: Associated Press
MGN Online

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – A federal grand jury has indicted four former executives of a chemical company on pollution charges in a January spill that prompted a drinking water ban for 300,000 West Virginia residents.

An indictment unsealed Wednesday charged ex-Freedom Industries presidents Gary Southern and Dennis P. Farrell and two others with failing to ensure that Freedom operated the steel storage tank that leaked in a reasonable and environmentally sound manner.

Southern also faces federal fraud charges related to the company’s bankruptcy case. Freedom filed for bankruptcy eight days after the Jan. 9 spill of coal-cleaning chemicals into the Elk River in Charleston. West Virginia American Water uses the river for its water supply a mile and a half downstream.

The others charged are William E. Tis and Charles E. Herzing, who along with Farrell owned Freedom until December 2013. They sold it to Pennsylvania-based Chemstream Holdings for $20 million, after which Southern became president.

Farrell served as Freedom’s president from October 2001 until the sale, after which he continued to work at the terminal in a management role.

Herzing also was Freedom’s vice president and Tis served as secretary.

All four were indicted for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

“Their negligence resulted in and caused the discharge of a pollutant … from point sources into the Elk River,” the indictment said.

During their time as Freedom corporate officers, Farrell, Tis, Herzing and Southern “approved funding only for those projects that would result in increased business revenue for Freedom or that were necessary to make immediate repairs to equipment that was broken or about to break,” the indictment said.

The men ignored or failed to fund other projects to repair, maintain and improve equipment and systems needed for compliance with environmental regulations, including addressing drainage problems in the containment area.

Southern’s attorney, Robert Allen, didn’t immediately return a message left at his office Wednesday.

More than a dozen aboveground storage tanks at the facility were removed. The World War II-era tank that leaked had two holes, just a few millimeters each, and had subpar last-resort containment walls.

The federal Chemical Safety Board is conducting its own investigation.

Southern was arrested last week, accused in a criminal complaint of lying about his role with the company in bankruptcy court hearings and meetings to protect his personal wealth of nearly $8 million from lawsuits.

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