Climate

Four Executives Indicted From Company Behind West Virginia Chemical Spill

CREDIT: WCHS News/Screenshot

Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, takes a sip of water at a press conference on the chemical spill.

Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, takes a sip of water at a press conference on the chemical spill.

Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, takes a sip of water at a press conference on the chemical spill.

CREDIT: WCHS News/Screenshot

The U.S. Attorney General’s office has filed an indictment against four executives of the company that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians this past January, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

The indictment marks the second time this month that former Freedom Industries CEO Gary Southern has been charged with violations related to a massive chemical spill that saw 10,000 gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical called crude MCHM dumped into West Virginia’s Elk River. Also named in Wednesdsay’s indictment are company ex-president Dennis Farrell, former secretary William Tis, and onetime vice president Charles Herzing.

Freedom Industries’ executives are accused of “fail[ing] to exercise reasonable care in its duty to operate the [chemical storage facility] in a safe and environmentally-sound manner,” and that their failure to exercise care was the primary reason for the historic spill.

“It’s hard to overstate the disruption that results when 300,000 people suddenly lose clean water,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press. “This is exactly the kind of scenario that the Clean Water Act is designed to prevent.”

The indictment brings Farrel, Tis, and Herzing into the public eye as figures allegedly responsible for the spill, which left 300,000 West Virginians without drinkable water for five days, though uncertainty surrounding whether the chemical was fully removed has left many residents still wary to drink the water.

Southern, however, had been at the center of the incident since it began. The day after the spill was discovered, he held a press conference, but attempted to excuse himself multiple times while being asked questions by reporters. He then took a sip of bottled water in front of the news cameras, an image many thought “brazen” considering his company was preventing others from that very luxury.

Southern was also scrutinized in March for asking for compensation while he worked during Freedom’s company bankruptcy. Southern said he had been working 12-16 hours every day and deserved to be paid. But local environmental leaders scoffed, saying he had been “out of the picture since day one of this crisis.”

Then, earlier this month, Southern was arrested and charged by the FBI with with bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud, and lying under oath during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings following the massive spill.