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6 charged in West Virginia water contamination

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Posted at 12:28 PM, Dec 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-18 12:28:36-05
Residents of Charleston, West Virginia fill jugs with clean water on Feb. 10, 2014, as local officials are hesitant to say whether tap water is safe to drink after a chemical spill.

Residents of Charleston, West Virginia fill jugs with clean water on Feb. 10, 2014, as local officials are hesitant to say whether tap water is safe to drink after a chemical spill.

Almost one year after water for more than 300,000 West Virginia residents was contaminated because of a chemical spill, six former officials for the company responsible for the leak are facing federal charges.

Seven-thousand gallons of a toxic chemical called MCHM leaked into the Elk River in West Virginia river on January 9, 1½ miles upstream from a water treatment facility. The Elk River supplies the city of Charleston with water. A do-not-use order was issued to 300,000 residents, some of whom could not drink or bathe in their water for more than a week.

The chemical MCHM is commonly used in the coal mining industry for cleaning, and was kept in tanks next to the river by the company Freedom Industries Inc. Several holes were found in the tank that leaked into the river.

The Freedom Industries president at the time was Gary Southern, 53, who was indicted on charges of negligent discharge of a pollutant in violation of the Clean Water Act, among other alleged violations. He also faces separate federal charges of wire and bankruptcy fraud. If convicted on all charges, he could face nearly 70 years in prison.

Three former owners of Freedom Industries were also indicted. Dennis P. Farrell, 58, William E. Tis, 60, and Charles E. Herzing, 63, were indicted on charges of negligent discharge of a pollutant and negligent discharge of refuse matter. They face up to three years in prison.

The indictment for Southern, Farrell, Tis and Herzing alleged that their company failed to make sure the tank holding MCHM was inspected for cracks and to keep it maintained. The indictment alleges that these four men approved funding “only for those projects that would result in increased business revenue for Freedom, or that were immediately necessary for required equipment maintenance.”

Two other men who worked for Freedom Industries at the time — Michael Burdette and Robert Reynolds — also face charges that they violated the Clean Water Act.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice was committed to vigorously enforcing the Clean Water Act.

“…The conditions at the Freedom Industries facility were not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful,” Holder said in the statement. “They put an entire population needlessly at risk.”

An attorney for Southern, Robert Allen, said it was inappropriate for U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Booth Goodwin to prosecute this case, because he, his colleagues and family were affected by the water contamination.

“If my family’s a victim, how can I prosecute somebody for causing that spill or allegedly causing that spill?” Allen said. “How can I be fair or impartial?”

Goodwin said he would address Allen’s concern “in due course.”

Steve Jory, an attorney for both Tis and Herzing, said they hired experts to make sure the company complied with environmental regulations and were not owners of Freedom Industries at the time of the leak.