Former Freedom owner headed to prison for role in chemical spill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A former owner of Freedom Industries was sentenced today to 30 days in federal prison, six months of supervised release, and a $20,000 fine for environmental crimes connected to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, announced Acting United States Attorney Carol Casto. Dennis P. Farrell, of Charleston, previously pleaded guilty in August 2015 to unlawfully discharging refuse matter and violating an environmental permit by failing to have a pollution prevention plan. Farrell 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.
Farrell, along with co-defendants Charles E. Herzing and William E. Tis, owned Freedom until December 2013, when they sold their shares to a Pennsylvania corporation. From 2001 until the 2013 sale, Farrell served as the president of Freedom. After the sale, Farrell continued to work at Freedom’s facility on the Elk River and continued to describe himself as president of the company. In his role as a corporate officer, Farrell had the responsibility and the authority to ensure that Freedom and its facility on the Elk River complied with the law.
Freedom had 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 implementation 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.
Farrell admitted that he was aware of the permit and knew that Freedom was required to have a storm water plan. He further admitted that he had the responsibility to ensure that Freedom complied with the permit by having a storm water and groundwater plan in place. During Farrell’s tenure as a corporate officer, Freedom never developed or implemented a storm water or groundwater plan, which was a proximate and contributing cause of the chemical spill.
Farrell is one of six defendants that have been sentenced as part of the investigation into the chemical spill. Robert J. Reynolds, of Apex, North Carolina, who worked as an environmental consultant with Freedom, was sentenced on February 1, 2016, for negligently discharging a pollutant. Charles E. Herzing, of McMurray, Pennsylvania, a former owner and vice president of Freedom, was sentenced on February 2, 2016, for unlawfully discharging refuse matter. Freedom, as a corporation, was sentenced on February 4, 2016, for negligently discharging a pollutant, unlawfully discharging refuse matter, and knowingly violating an environmental permit. Michael E. Burdette, of Dunbar, a former plant manager for Freedom’s facility on the Elk River, was sentenced on February 4, 2016, for negligently discharging a pollutant. William E. Tis, of Verona, Pennsylvania, a former owner and secretary of Freedom, was sentenced on Monday for unlawfully discharging refuse matter.
Gary Southern, of Marco Island, Florida, the president of Freedom at the time of the spill, pleaded guilty in August 2015 to negligently discharging a pollutant, unlawfully discharging refuse matter, and negligently 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 hearing associated with the chemical spill.
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