CHARLESTON, W.Va. – U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that the final defendants charged in connection with the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill pleaded guilty in federal court.
Gary Southern, 53, the president of Freedom Industries, Inc., at the time of the spill, pleaded guilty today to violating the federal Clean Water Act, negligently discharging refuse matter in violation of the federal Refuse Act, and failing to have a pollution prevention plan.
Dennis P. Farrell, 58, a former Freedom president and owner, pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating the federal Refuse Act and failing to have a pollution prevention plan. Freedom and four other Freedom officials previously pleaded guilty to environmental crimes in March 2015.
“This should serve as a wakeup call to those who operate chemical storage facilities near our precious water resources. If you place our water at risk, you face prison time,” Goodwin said. “As I said when these individuals were charged, 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 this kind of criminal behavior will be held accountable. That’s exactly what we have done through these prosecutions.”
Freedom Industries, Inc., and six former Freedom officials—including Farrell and Southern—were charged in December 2014 with various federal crimes related to the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., which ultimately affected the water supply of more than 300,000 people.
Southern faces a mandatory minimum of 30 days and up to three years in federal prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 16, 2015. Farrell faces a mandatory minimum of 30 days and up to two years in federal prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 14, 2015.
Southern and Farrell’s criminal conduct included:
• failure to properly maintain the containment area surrounding the tanks at Freedom’s Elk River facility and to make necessary repairs to ensure the containment area would contain a chemical spill;
• failure to properly inspect a tank containing the chemical MCHM;
• failure to develop and implement a spill prevention, control and countermeasures plan; and
• failure to develop and implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan and groundwater protection plan, both requirements of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit.
William E. Tis of Verona, Pa., and Charles E. Herzing of McMurray, Pa., former owners of Freedom, each pleaded guilty in March 2015 to one count concerning the negligent discharge of refuse matter in violation of the federal Refuse Act. They each face a mandatory minimum of 30 days and up to a year in federal prison. Tis is set to be sentenced December 2, 2015. Herzing is set to be sentenced December 3, 2015.
Freedom environmental consultant Robert J. Reynolds of Apex, N.C., and tank farm plant manager Michael E. Burdette of Dunbar, W. Va., were charged separately with violating the federal Clean Water Act. They each pleaded guilty to those charges in March 2015. They each face up to one year in prison.
Reynolds is set to be sentenced Dec. 7, 2015. Burdette’s sentencing is set for December 9, 2015.
Freedom Industries itself, which has been in bankruptcy since shortly after the spill, was charged with violating the Clean Water Act, negligent discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act, and violating an environmental permit.
A representative of the corporation entered a guilty plea to those charges on its behalf in March 2015. Freedom is set to be sentenced December 10, 2015.