Dec 17 (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors have indicted Freedom Industries Inc and six former company officials on 13 criminal charges stemming from a January chemical spill that fouled drinking water for about 300,000 West Virginians.
The indictment, made public on Wednesday, accused the company and its former president and officers of negligence and fraud in the discharge of a chemical pollutant into the Elk River near Charleston in alleged violation of the Clean Water Act, Refuse Act and in violation of an environmental permit.
The leak of a chemical foam used to wash coal, known as 4-methycyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), breached a containment area one mile (1.6 km) upstream of a water treatment and distribution plant near Charleston, according to the charges.
The indictment named former Freedom President Gary Southern, former company owners and officers Dennis Farrell, William Tis and Charles Herzing.
Charges were also filed against the company’s environmental consultant, Robert Reynolds, and tank farm plant manager Michael Burdette in what is known as a federal “information.”
In addition, Southern is charged with bankruptcy fraud, mail and wire fraud, and could face a maximum of 68 years in prison, according to a statement by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin for the Southern District of West Virginia.
On Monday, Southern’s attorney Robert Allen filed a motion to disqualify Goodwin and his entire office from bringing criminal charges, arguing that Goodwin had a conflict of interest as a victim of the spill.
“We do not believe he (Southern) is guilty of any of the charges and will resist them vigorously,” Allen said in an interview.
Freedom industries filed for bankruptcy protection following the spill and has taken down the tanks, according to Allen.
Representatives of the company did not return calls seeking comment.
Farrell, Tis and Herzing face similar charges with a maximum potential of three years in prison each, Goodwin said.
“It’s hard to overstate the disruption that results when 300,000 people suddenly lose clean water,” Goodwin said in a statement.
Allegations include that company officials failed to maintain the containment area around the Elk River facility in southwestern West Virginia; and failed to properly inspect the tank containing MCHM or develop spill prevention and storm water pollution plans.
The Case: U.S. v. Farrell, U.S. Southern District of West Virginia, No. 14-264.
For Plaintiffs: Philip Wright and Larry Ellis, U.S. Attorneys Office.
For Defendants: (Southern) Robert Allen of Kay Casto & Chaney. (Freedom Industries bankruptcy) Mark Friedlander, McGuire Woods. (Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alan Crosby)