CHARLESTON, W.Va., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Freedom Industries and six former employees were indicted Wednesday for the chemical spill that left some 300,000 West Virginia residents without clean tap water for more than a week.
Former Freedom Industries President Gary L. Southern, and former owners and officers Dennis P. Farrell, William E. Tis and Charles E. Herzing were named in the federal indictment. Former environmental consultant Robert J. Reynolds and former tank farm plant manager Michael E. Burdette were charged in documents called "informations," indicating a possible plea arrangement. The company itself was also charged in an information document.
Southern, Farrell, Tis and Herzing were each charged with the negligent discharge of a pollutant in violation of the Clean Air Act, negligent discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act and violating an environmental permit. Southern faces an additional 10 charges related to wire fraud and various bankruptcy fraud charges.
If convicted, Farrell, Tis and Herzing face up to three years in prison, and Southern faces up to 68 years.
Southern, Farrell, Tis and Herzing were accused of allegedly approving funding only for projects that made money for Freedom Industries, not those "necessary for environmental compliance at the Elk River facility, including repairing defects in a containment wall, addressing drainage problems in the containment area, and developing and implementing proper protection plans," a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice read.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the conditions at the Freedom Industries facility "not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful."
"They put an entire population needlessly at risk. As these actions make clear, such conduct cannot, and will not, be tolerated," he added. "These law enforcement actions send an unambiguous message: that compliance with environmental safety standards is an obligation, not a choice. The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing the Clean Water Act and other natural resource protections. And we will never rest in our efforts to protect the American people -- and our environment -- from harm."
A chemical spill at Freedom Industries dumped 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River about a mile north of Charleston. Residents in eight surrounding counties were told not to use their tap water for anything other than flushing the toilet for up to more than a week after the incident on Jan. 9.
"It's hard to overstate the disruption that results when 300,000 people suddenly lose clean water," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said, announcing the indictments. "This is exactly the kind of scenario that the Clean Water Act is designed to prevent. This spill, which was completely preventable, happened to take place in this district, but it could have happened anywhere. If we don't want it to happen again, we need to make it crystal clear that those who engage in the kind of criminal behavior that led to this crisis will be held accountable."