Climate

CEO Behind West Virginia’s Historic Chemical Spill Gets 1 Month In Prison

CREDIT: WCHS NEWS/SCREENSHOT

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

The former president of the company that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians has been sentenced to one month in prison — the minimum sentence allowed for the crimes at hand.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward Jr. reported the sentencing of Freedom Industries’ former president Gary Southern on Wednesday. In addition to one month of prison time, Southern was also given a $20,000 fine for charges related to the January 2014 spill. Under federal guidelines, the recommended sentence was 24 to 30 months and a fine of up to $300,000.

“This defendant is hardly a criminal,” U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston said after handing down the sentence, according to Ward. “I stand by that statement.”


In August of last year, Southern pled guilty to environmental crimes, including violating a Clean Water Act permit and negligent discharge of a pollutant. That pollutant, a coal-cleaning chemical called crude MCHM, spilled from one of the company’s rusty, neglected tanks into the Elk River in January 2014, contaminating drinking water for 300,000 people. More than 100 people sought medical treatment for issues they believed were related to coming in contact with contaminated water.

In late 2014, Southern was also charged with bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud, and lying under oath during Freedom Industry’s eventual bankruptcy proceedings following the massive spill. FBI Special Agent James F. Lafferty said in a sworn affidavit that Southern, in an attempt to protect his personal fortune of nearly $8 million and shield himself from lawsuits, developed a scheme to distance himself from the company and “deflect blame” to other parties.

Southern lives in a $1.2 million, 4,133-square-foot mansion in Marco Island, Florida, according to documents on the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office. Following his sentencing on Wednesday, Southern was given permission to fly back to Florida on a private plan, Ward reported.


A previous version of this post referred to Southern’s criminal trial. He actually took a plea deal.