Exactly one month and a day after 10,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into West Virginia’s water, members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee on Monday traveled to the state’s capital city, ostensibly to ask state leaders the still-unanswered questions surrounding the leak. There are many.
Perhaps the most important party that could provide answers would have been Freedom Industries, the company whose chemical storage tanks leaked a coal-cleaning chemical called crude MCHM into the water. Company president Gary Southern had been invited to testify, but in the end, did not show up.
“I find that extremely telling,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “Freedom Industries’ decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill.”
Freedom Industries’ decision not to show up to a hearing that otherwise housed every party that should be held accountable for the spill (Representatives from West Virginia American Water, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board showed up, to name a few) is depressingly typical, and a painful reminder of the company’s non-presence throughout the month-long ordeal.
“They’ve been basically out of the picture since day one of this crisis, even though they were the cause of the crisis,” Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Gary Zuckett, told ClimateProgress, recalling the events of the week following the spill. “The first thing that [Freedom] did was file for bankruptcy. The second thing they did was open a new corporation to loan the first corporation money.”
Indeed, after being being criticized for failing to immediately report the chemical leak, and faced with lawsuits from those who had been harmed, Freedom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy shielded it from lawsuits, and since then the company has been increasingly opaque — only breaking its silence to revise spill numbers (last week it said 10,000, not 7,500 gallons, had spilled) and admit that more than one chemical had actually spilled.
“That’s the big reason they filed bankruptcy, I think, so that they can be excused for stepping out,” Maria Gunnoe, spokesperson for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told ClimateProgress. “They realize, they’re in — instead of hot water — poison water.”
Of course it’s hard to forget the one time Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern decided to step out and speak, the day after the chemical spill was said to have begun occurring. Fumbling with reporters’ questions and attempting to excuse himself multiple times, an exasperated Southern took a sip of bottled water in front of the news cameras — an image that many called “brazen” considering his company was preventing others from that very luxury.
When asked for comment by the Huffington Post, a representative for Freedom Industries referred to its lawyer, Paul Vey, who said Southern did not attend “simply because the company is relatively small and we are focused exclusively on remediation of the spill.”
And considering all the bad press, Zuckett said maybe it was for the best that Southern didn’t show up to the hearing.
“He was digging this thing deeper,” Zuckett said. “They wisely decided to get him out of the spotlight.”