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Former chemical company leader pleads guilty in 2014 West Virginia spill

Posted at 1:41 PM, Aug 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-20 13:41:01-04

The former president of the chemical company responsible for contaminating the water supply of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents in 2014 pleaded guilty Wednesday to violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Gary Southern, 53, was president of Freedom Industries on January 9, 2014, when 7,000 gallons of a toxic chemical called MCHM leaked from its holding tanks into the Elk River in West Virginia.

The leak was one and a half miles upstream from a water treatment facility supplying 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.

With his plea, Southern acknowledges he failed to properly inspect the chemical holding tanks and did not make the repairs necessary to ensure that the facility could properly contain a chemical spill.

“This should serve as a wake-up call to those who operate chemical storage facilities near our precious water resources,” said U.S. Attorney for West Virginia Booth Goodwin. “If you place our water at risk, you face prison time.”

Southern was indicted in December along with Freedom Industries and five more company officials. They have all since pleaded guilty, and the company has declared bankruptcy.

Southern faces up to three years in prison when he is sentenced in December on the counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act, negligently discharging refuse matter in violation of the federal Refuse Act and failing to have a pollution prevention plan.

Prosecutors said holes were found in the tanks used by Freedom Industries to hold the toxic chemical MCHM, used commonly in the coal mining industry for cleaning.

Former Freedom Industries President and owner Dennis Farrell, 58, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to violating the federal Refuse Act and failing to have a pollution prevention plan.

In March, the company and four of the officials named in the indictment pleaded guilty to similar environmental crimes.