2 More Guilty in WV Chem Spill

Thursday, March 19, 2015 @ 05:03 PM gHale

This has been a big week for guilty pleas in the Freedom Industries Chemical spill into the Elk River as two former employees pleaded guilty to a pollution charge Wednesday.

Ex-Freedom plant manager Michael Burdette and environmental consultant Robert Reynolds entered the pleas at separate hearings to negligent discharge of a pollutant. Each faces up to a year in prison and a minimum $2,500 fine when sentenced June 24.

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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.

In two other cases, former Freedom owners Charles Herzing and William Tis pleaded guilty Monday to causing an unlawful discharge.

Ex-Freedom owner Dennis Farrell and former President Gary Southern face trial later this year on charges related to the spill. In addition, Southern faces charges related to Freedom’s bankruptcy.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Burdette, Reynolds, Tis and Herzing previously entered into plea agreements that require their cooperation in the investigation. But Goodwin wouldn’t speculate on whether he’ll ask the four to testify against Farrell and Southern.

“I can’t say that we will or will not use them in a trial setting,” Goodwin said.

An FBI affidavit said Freedom knew about critical flaws at its Charleston plant but never dealt with them. Federal investigators have said holes in a corroded tank’s floor and roof likely helped cause the spill.

Prosecutors have said the tank conditions “put an entire population needlessly at risk.”

According to health officials, more than 400 people were treated at hospitals for symptoms that matched the expected from exposure to the chemical.

Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy protection eight days after the spill.

After entering his plea Monday, Tis initially waffled when asked by U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston whether he committed the crime.

“No, I don’t believe I have committed a crime, but I am pleading guilty,” Tis said. But then he added, “I do believe I am guilty of this offense. There are people we had hired … Their failure results in my failure.”

Neither Burdette nor Reynolds elaborated when Johnston posed a similar question, but simply admitted their roles.

Tis, Herzing and Farrell owned Freedom until December 2013, when they sold it to Pennsylvania-based Chemstream Holdings for $20 million. Southern became president afterward, but he was in charge of Freedom’s day-to-day operations for years beforehand, his FBI affidavit said.

Southern stands accused of scheming to defraud Freedom’s creditors and plaintiffs who sued the company and him after the spill.

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