By Lin Smith
Freedom Industries of West Virginia
February 15, 2014—-By now everyone has heard of the January 9, 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia which poisoned the water of some 300,000 people around the Charleston area. But what are the actions (or inactions) that led up to this catastrophe? Who are the people that paved the way for such a disaster to take place?
Freedom Industries was founded by Gary Southern and Carl Kennedy. Southern remains president over the current company, formed December 31, 2013, when Freedom merged with three other companies. Freedom Industries’ website tells us about their operation: “Freedom Industries is a full service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining (coal), steel, and cement industries. Founded in 1986, and located in Charleston, WV, it is a leader in producing freeze conditioning agents, dust control palliatives, flotation reagents, water treatment polmers and other specialty chemicals.” The Charleston plant is on the Elk River, where the chemical spill took place,and has 4 million gallons of storage capacity with the ability “to move large volumes of chemicals rapidly.” NPR reported that the tanks were visible to the public along a highway leading into Charleston, and, in close proximity to a water plant which houses the drinking water for the Charleston area.
The Department of Environmental Protection Agency Inspects Freedom Industries
On January 9, 2014, after people in the Charleston area reported their drinking water was emitting a strong odor, inspectors from DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection Agency, arrived at Freedom Industries. When the DEP questioned a Freedom executive, Dennis Farrell, about the odor, he stated, “As far as I know this is just a busy time of year. The employees are handling a lot of trailers which are shipping the chemicals out and I know of no problems.” The DEP officials then asked to tour the facilities. Before they arrived at the leaking holding pond an employee took Mr. Farrell aside to talk privately. When he returned he told DEP officials there was a problem. They then discovered a 400 sq. ft. pool on the side of a large tank, with a 4 ft. wide stream flowing from a containment dike which was made of one cinder block and a 50 pd. bag of an absorbant. Mike Kelb, DEP inspector, said when viewing the leak, “It was apparent it was not an event that had just happened and this was just a band-aid approach for containment.” The inspectors said the leak ran underground, like a spring, and didn’t appear to go into the river, but the river was frozen so this couldn’t be verified at the time.
When DEP called on the Water Pollution crews for further investigation, they noted that Freedom Industries didn’t seem to “give any real attention to the containment of the leaking chemicals, as they were leaking out of a very old dike.” An inspection of the facilities had not been done since 1991. Why hadn’t a recent inspection been done? West Virginia law states that since Freedom Industries didn’t make the chemicals on site, and only stored chemicals on the site, there was no need for a “site-specific” pollution permit. They legally fell through the cracks, needing only a “general permit” that required a spill prevention plan, (a brick and a sand bag?) This general permit did state that Freedom Industries needed to contact DEP immediately if there was a spill (which they failed to do), but no inspection was necessary! The general permit Freedom Industries had for storing chemicals was the same permit farmers need when using chemical pesticides on their land. So, the spill was not reported until, well, until the DEP officials were on site, standing on the edge of the leaking, chemical pool! And the executive of the company leading the tour, being totally ignorant of any happenings, only became aware of the situation when an employee pulled him aside and revealed the mishap, as inspectors were walking toward the spill!
Freedom Industries: No Responsibility Taken
Currently, Fema has quit delivering water, and according to NPR, no one has stated the water is safe to drink yet. A federal grand jury has launched a criminal investigation into the chemical spill, which Freedom Industries chose not to show up at. Gary Zuckett, of the West Virginia Citizen’s Action Committee, said Freedom has not taken responsibility for the mess they created, “The first thing they did was file for bankruptcy. The second thing they did was open a new corporation to loan the first corporation money.” Meanwhile, on February 4, 2014 the EPA was informed by Freedom Industries that they have started to ship 3,500 gallons of the chemical, MCHM , to a coal facility in Pennsylvania.
Dennis Lemly of the U.S. Forest Service of West Virginia said,” I’ve made a career of counting bodies and deformities of fish and wildlife caused by processing coal. How many years and how many cases does it take before somebody will step up to the plate and say we need to change this!”