Charleston U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that his agency was focused on pursuing prison time for the former executives as a stronger deterrent than financial penalties. Goodwin said, “Executives are used to writing checks. It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.”
Former Freedom Industries president Gary Southern pleaded guilty to three of the 15 charges against him on Wednesday in Charleston, West Virginia federal court. The crimes include indirect participation in the polluting of West Virginia’s Elk River, as well as permit violations. The plea follows Tuesday’s plea of another former executive, Dennis Farrell, for his part in the massive chemical spill on January 9th, 2014, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 residents for up to ten days. Ferrell and Southern are the last of six former Freedom Industries executives to plead guilty to environmental crimes. Ferrell could face 30 days to two years in prison and up to a $200,000 fine, while Southern’s could face up to three years and be required to pay up to a $300,000 fine. Both had previously pleaded not guilty ahead of the scheduled October 6th trial date. All six former executives are scheduled to be sentenced on various dates in December.
Freedom Industries operated chemical storage tanks near the intake pipes of the Charleston-area regional water authority. Freedom’s rusty tanks spilled over 10,000 gallons of a toxic coal-cleaning agent known as MCHM into the area’s drinking water supply on the day of the spill. In addition to leaving residents in nine counties unable to access tap water, over 100 residents sought treatment for nausea and vomiting. Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy in the days following the spill, with the division of assets as a form of compensation for the cleanup effort tied up in the court system. The company had proposed a $2.7 million settlement for the victims of the spill, but the court rejected the proposal in fear of the company not being able to afford cleanup of the spill site. Claims against Freedom Industries have far exceeded assets so far in bankruptcy proceedings. The president of local group People Concerned About Chemical Safety, Maya Nye, suggested in a letter to the judge that an award of at least $45.6 million to $109.5, to the spill’s victims would be a more acceptable amount.
Charleston U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that his agency was focused on pursuing prison time for the former executives as a stronger deterrent than financial penalties. Goodwin said, “Executives are used to writing checks. It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.” Despite the aggressive prosecution, Nye is disappointed that the government did not demand restitution to be part of the sentences. Nye said about Southern, “It’s disappointing that he’ll be able to maintain his financial wealth through this when the community is still recovering.” Goodwin cited however, that the limitations of Freedom’s assets, mixed with the uncertainty of whom, or how many victims would be entitled to restitution, that the threat of prison was a better deterrent. In addition to the criminal and bankruptcy proceedings against Freedom Industries, class-action lawsuits have formed against both Eastman Chemical, who is the maker of MCHM, as well as the contaminated water provider, West Virginia American Water.
New York Times – Daniel Heyman
U.S. News and World Report/Associated Press – Jonathan Mattise
WOWKTV.com/Charleston – Mandi Cardosi