Across Appalachia

Former Freedom Executives Indicted for Elk River Chemical Spill

Date: February 17, 2015

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By Kimber Ray

Federal prosecutors in December charged the now-bankrupt Freedom Industries and six former employees for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in relatation to the January 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents.

The FBI released supporting documents showing that at least a decade before the spill, Freedom was warned of problems at the Elk River site such as critical deficiencies with the tank and containment wall that allowed chemicals to seep into the river. The agency also reports that company expenditures were almost exclusively devoted to projects that would increase revenue, rather than compliance with environmental regulations.

Former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces additional fraud charges related to the company’s bankruptcy filing the month of the spill. According to these charges, Southern, a company executive since 2009, falsely stated under oath to have assumed leadership with the company only days before the spill in order to avoid blame and protect his assets from lawsuits.

In response to the spill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to create the nation’s first requirement for inspection of aboveground storage tanks, according to National Geographic. As of mid-January, inspection certifications required for approximately 20,000 of the state’s more than 47,000 aboveground tanks were not submitted by the Jan. 1 deadline and, of those submitted, nearly 1,100 did not meet new safety requirements.

Industry lobby groups have tried to weaken the new chemical safety bill, in one instance proposing changes that would exclude thousand of tanks near drinking water sources from new inspection and safety standards.

Such changes could provide amnesty to Lexycon, a company created by former Freedom executives three months after the spill. The new company has already been cited for charges such as improper storage of MCHM — the chemical associated with the notorious spill — and releasing chemicals into waterways without a permit. No fines have been issued.

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