WV Chem Spill Guilty Pleas Expected

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 @ 12:02 PM gHale

Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to schedule guilty plea hearings for two former Freedom Industries owners, the company and two other officials.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright filed the motions last Wednesday for former Freedom owners Charles Herzing, 63, of McMurray, PA, and William Tis, 60, of Verona, PA.

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They also filed these motions in the cases against Michael E. Burdette, 60, of Dunbar, WV; Robert J. Reynolds, 63, of Apex, NC, and Freedom Industries itself.

The motions ask the judge to “set a date, time, and location for a guilty plea hearing.”

Tis, Herzing and former owner Dennis Farrell, 58, of Charleston, WV, face charges including negligent discharge of a pollutant, unlawful discharge of refuse and negligent violation of permit condition.

On January 9, 2014, a Freedom Industries tank storing 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked more than 7,000 gallons of the black licorice-scented chemical used to clean coal into the Elk River in West Virginia. The chemical leaked into the Elk River, which supplies the city of Charleston with water. A do-not-use order ended up issued to 300,000 residents, some of whom could not drink or bathe in their water for more than a week. MCHM is not directly lethal but can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and skin rashes. A month after the spill, tap water tests in 10 homes detected MCHM still in the water supply, albeit at levels within the state’s legal limit.

Burdette, a former plant manager for the Freedom facility, and Reynolds, an environmental consultant, as well as Freedom Industries, had information charges filed against them for violating the Clean Water Act.

An information charge is when the defendant agrees to have charges filed against themselves without formal grand jury proceedings.

Former Freedom President Gary Southern, 53, of Marco Island, FL, faces Clean Water Act violations, scheming to defraud in a bankruptcy case, scheming to defraud by wire, fraud by interstate commerce carrier and making false oath in a bankruptcy case.

Herzing’s and Tis’ attorneys had previously filed documents in federal court asking to delay the March 10 trials. Herzing’s attorney Stephen Jory asked to continue the trial until at least June, mentioning the size of the documents and attorneys’ previously-scheduled trip to New Zealand.

Tis’ motion also mentioned the “sheer amount of information” that needed to undergo review and said attorneys intend to file a motion to move the trial’s location.

Attorneys for Southern and Farrell also asked to postpone their trials. Southern’s motion also mentioned an intention to file a motion to change the location of the trial.

Federal prosecutors responded to Southern’s motion to continue Wednesday, saying they didn’t oppose a “reasonable postponement” of the trial dates, saying a June trial with an April 1 deadline for pretrial motions would be sufficient.

Addressing the change of venue, prosecutors said in the response the original indictment ended up returned in December and he could have filed a motion to change venue before arraignment.

Federal prosecutors also mentioned their motions to schedule guilty plea hearings in the other cases.

“A resolution of the cases against these co-defendants will streamline and shorten the trial against the remaining two defendants,” the motion said.

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