The man at the helm of Freedom Industries — the company that declared bankruptcy days after polluting drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians in January — would like to be paid for his troubles.
Gary Southern, who earns a $230,000 salary, has not received a paycheck since Jan. 19, according to court documents. But he has been working very hard, his lawyers say.
Since Jan. 9, the day when 10,000 gallons of mystery-chemical spilled into West Virginia’s water, Southern as worked 12-16 hours per day, every day. Since March 3, he has worked 10-12 hours per day, Monday through Friday, and has been on call. Those duties have included tending to environmental clean-up efforts, cooperating with a federal investigation into his companies’ practices, and attending “daily meetings with representatives of the state and federal government.”
It is not unheard of for a company executive to ask for compensation while he or she works during a company bankruptcy. But each instance is highly scrutinized, and the decision to award such compensation belongs to the bankruptcy judge.
Gary Southern’s request for payment, however, may come as a surprise to West Virginians, who have heard little more than nothing from Freedom Industries since the chemical spill, which has still not been fully cleared up. Southern, for example, was invited to a U.S. Congressional hearing located in West Virginia last month to update lawmakers and the public on the status of the spill, but neither he or anyone from the company showed up.
“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 at the time. He recalled 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 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.
It’s not like Southern is not well-off, either. According to documents on the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, Southern’s primary residence is a 4133 square foot mansion in Marco Island, Florida — a state with no individual income tax. As records on Trulia show, Southern’s property sold in 2006 for $2 million, but Southern bought it more recently for $1.2 million.