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Last official charged in chemical spill pleads guilty

August 19, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The executive who appeared unsympathetic when he spoke to the public after a chemical spill sullied tap water for 300,000 people pleaded guilty Wednesday to pollution charges and could face up to three years in prison.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, who told reporters a day after the January 2014 spill that he had had a “long day” and tried to leave a news conference multiple times, is the last of six company officials to plead guilty in the spill.

The spill happened when a corroded Freedom tank in Charleston leaked coal-cleaning chemicals into the water supply for nine counties, spurring a ban on tap water for up to 10 days.

Southern pleaded guilty to three pollution charges and faces a minimum of 30 days in prison and a maximum of three years in a plea deal. He also faces a fine of up to $300,000 and perhaps restitution.

He will be sentenced Dec. 16. Prosecutors dropped 12 other counts related to bankruptcy fraud.

Freedom’s public image suffered after Southern spoke at a Jan. 10, 2014, news conference.

“Look guys. It has been an extremely long day,” Southern said, occasionally drinking from a bottle of water. “I have trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate if we could wrap this thing up.”

Prosecutors portrayed Southern as a wealthy businessman who cared little about safety. In court documents, they considered the United Kingdom citizen a flight risk because he had a pilot’s license and a plane. Prosecutors said a tracking device wouldn’t work on him because his Marco Island, Florida, house was too big.

The government seized $7.3 million and a Bentley from Southern and put a lien on his Florida house. Under the plea deal, he would get those assets back. Prosecutors said it would be up to immigration officials to decide whether to deport him.

The plea deal said some assets could go toward claims in Freedom’s bankruptcy case, a class-action lawsuit or court-ordered restitution.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office will not ask Judge Thomas Johnston for restitution because the applicable environmental laws are not well designed for that.

For more than a decade, officials had been aware of critical deficiencies at the Freedom site, including a cracked containment wall that let chemicals seep through down a bank into the Elk River, an FBI affidavit said. But improvements to the wall weren’t made.

On Tuesday, former Freedom executive Dennis Farrell pleaded guilty to a deal that includes 30 days to two years in prison and up to a $200,000 fine.

Southern and Farrell had said some prosecutors had been affected by the spill and tried to get Goodwin’s office off the case, but they did not succeed.

Businesses and residents who struggled without clean water are closely watching several ongoing court cases that will dictate if they are paid back for their hardships.

A class-action lawsuit is ongoing against the chemical’s producer, Eastman Chemical, and West Virginia American Water, the utility whose water supply became laced with chemicals.

A final bankruptcy deal still hasn’t been struck, as businesses and residents compete with other creditors for the little cash remaining in defunct Freedom Industries. The company had proposed paying out $2.7 million to spill victims in a larger bankruptcy plan, but a federal bankruptcy judge rejected the proposal over concerns about paying to clean up Freedom’s contaminated headquarters.

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