Company That Caused Historic West Virginia Chemical Spill Fined $11k

The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER
The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER

The company responsible for letting 10,000 gallons of a mysterious chemical seep into West Virginia’s drinking water supply this past January was fined $11,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor on Monday, just two days before the six-month anniversary of the historic spill.

After inspecting the facilities at Freedom Industries’ chemical storage site in Charleston, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that, at the time of the spill, Freedom Industries’ chemical tanks containing crude MCHM had been surrounded by a wall that was not liquid tight. That violation that warranted a $7,000 fine.

OSHA also hit Freedom Industries with an additional $4,000 fine for not having railings on an elevated platform used for loading and storing the chemical in the tanks. Both violations were labeled by OSHA as “serious,” warranting monetary penalties.

The agency also found that Freedom Industries failed to properly label one of the chemical tanks, which was marked “Glycerin” instead of “Crude MCHM.” But that violation was considered “other than serious,” and did not include a fine.

Following the original spill on January 9, Freedom Industries was criticized over the physical conditions of its aging chemical storage facility. “I always thought it wasn’t even open,” Phil Mullins, a lifelong Charleston resident who had driven by the tanks on many occasions, told ThinkProgress in January. “It looked like it was abandoned.”

The original tank that stored and eventually leaked the chemical was old, and hadn’t been inspected since 1991, when it was owned by a different company. Indeed, OSHA had never inspected Freedom Industries’ facility — not until after the spill.

Maya Nye, president of the West Virginia citizen group People Concerned About Chemical Safety, lamented the fact that it took such an enormous and tragic event to get the federal agency to finally inspect the site.

“I think that it’s sad that this is the first time that OSHA has been at the facility,” Nye told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “Had they been at the facility previously, maybe the incident could have been prevented, because these issues would have been noted sooner.”

Nye said regular inspections of chemical storage sites — especially ones located right next to drinking water supplies — are necessary to prevent spills, because the fines wind up being relatively minuscule compared to the costs of keeping equipment up to snuff, and compared to how much money the company makes.

“It’s kind of like a slap on the wrist,” Nye said. “For a lot of industries, it’s easier to pay the fine than fix the problem, which ends up posing dangers to the workers and the community.”

Freedom Industries, which is currently going through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of claims arising from the spill, listed up to $10 million in assets and up to $10 million in debts when it filed for bankruptcy in January. The company’s President, Gary Southern, lives in a $1.2 million, 4133 square foot mansion in Marco Island, Florida — a state with no individual income tax.

Wednesday marks the sixth month anniversary of the day when Freedom’s tanks spilled 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM — the licorice-scented chemical mixture used in the coal production process — into West Virginia’s Elk River, tainting the water supply for 300,000 civilians. In the aftermath, nearly 600 people checked themselves into local hospitals with what federal epidemiologists called “mild” illnesses, such as rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

Long-term effects of exposure to the chemical are unclear. There is currently no data on crude MCHM’s carcinogenic effects, ability to interfere with human development, or its ability to cause DNA mutations and physical deformities.