Former Freedom Industries official sentenced for role in chemical spill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A former official of Freedom Industries was sentenced today to three years of probation and a $10,000 fine for a Clean Water Act violation connected to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, announced Acting United States Attorney Carol Casto. Robert J. Reynolds, of Apex, North Carolina, previously pleaded guilty in federal court to negligently discharging a pollutant in March 2015. Reynolds is one of six former officials of Freedom Industries, in addition to Freedom Industries itself as a corporation, to be prosecuted for federal crimes associated with the chemical spill.
On January 9, 2014, a major chemical leak was discovered in Charleston at the above-ground storage tank area owned and operated by Freedom Industries (Freedom) on the Elk River. Freedom used these storage tanks to keep and process chemicals, and the leak consisted primarily of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical used in the coal mining industry as a cleansing agent. A significant amount of MCHM leaked into the Elk River, flowed into a water treatment plant, and contaminated the water supply of Charleston and the surrounding areas for several days. Freedom did not have a permit required by law that would have allowed the company to discharge MCHM into the Elk River.
Beginning in 2002, Reynolds worked with Freedom as an environmental consultant and was responsible for developing and maintaining pollution prevention plans. Reynolds admitted that he should have developed and maintained a storm water pollution prevention plan and a groundwater protection plan for the MCHM storage tanks that could have prevented the chemical spill. Freedom did have a permit issued by West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection that allowed for the discharge of storm water and groundwater subject to monitoring and reporting requirements. However, this permit did not allow for the discharge of MCHM, and required the development and maintenance of a storm water plan and a groundwater plan. Generally, storm water and groundwater plans identify potential sources of pollution and outline steps to prevent, contain, and reduce pollutants.
Reynolds admitted that he should have known of this requirement. He also admitted that while there was no storm water or groundwater plan in place at Freedom’s facility on the Elk River, there were such plans implemented at another facility operated by Freedom in Nitro. Reynolds even provided training to Freedom’s employees at the Nitro facility on its plans, despite the absence of similar plans at Freedom’s facility by the Elk River.
Reynolds knew of and should have appreciated the hazards associated with MCHM and the need to take reasonable steps to ensure that it did not spill into the Elk River. Reynolds admitted that he carried out his duties without due care for regulatory and environmental compliance, and that his failure to implement a storm water plan was a proximate cause of the 2014 chemical spill of MCHM.
Reynolds is the first defendant sentenced as part of the investigation into the chemical spill. Freedom itself, which has been in bankruptcy since shortly after the chemical spill, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, the unlawful discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act, and violating an environmental permit. Freedom is scheduled to be sentenced on February 4, 2016.
Charles E. Herzing, of McMurray, Pennsylvania, and William E. Tis, of Verona, Pennsylvania, former owners of Freedom, each pleaded guilty in March 2015 to the unlawful discharge of refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act. Herzing is scheduled to be sentenced on February 2, 2016. Tis is scheduled to be sentenced on February 8, 2016.
Michael E. Burdette, of Dunbar, a plant manager for Freedom, pleaded guilty in March 2015 to violating the Clean Water Act by negligently discharging a pollutant, and is scheduled to be sentenced on February 4, 2016.
Dennis P. Farrell, of Charleston, a former Freedom president and owner, pleaded guilty in August 2015 to violating the federal Refuse Act and violating a permit by failing to have a pollution prevention plan. Farrell is scheduled to be sentenced on February 11, 2016.
Gary Southern, of Marco Island, Florida, the president of Freedom at the time of the spill, pleaded guilty in August 2015 to violating the Clean Water Act, negligently discharging refuse matter in violation of the Refuse Act, and violating a permit by failing to have a pollution prevention plan. Southern is scheduled to be sentenced on February 17, 2016.
The investigation of the chemical spill was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. Assistant United States Attorneys Philip H. Wright, Larry R. Ellis, and Eric P. Bacaj, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsel Perry D. McDaniel, are handling the prosecutions. United States District Judge Thomas E. Johnston imposed the sentence, and will preside over the remaining sentencing hearings associated with the chemical spill.
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