3 Executives Charged in WV Chemical Spill Plead Not Guilty

Three executives charged in a chemical spill last January in West Virginia pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday.

Three executives charged in a chemical spill last January in West Virginia pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday.

The pleas come a day after an FBI affidavit was unsealed, saying Freedom Industries knew about critical flaws at its Charleston plant more than a decade before the spill, but never dealt with them. The company didn't craft required spill plans, it adds.

Former Freedom officials Dennis Farrell, William Tis and Gary Southern entered their pleas in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Dwane Tinsley in Charleston.

Farrell and Tis were each released on $10,000 bond. Southern already posted a $100,000 bond Dec. 9 in a Fort Myers, Florida, federal court closer to his Marco Island house. He was arrested the day before on a criminal complaint from an FBI affidavit.

Each of their trials is set for March 10 in Charleston.

A year ago Friday, a coal-cleaning chemical leaked from a Freedom tank, seeped through a faulty containment wall, entered the Elk River and eventually overwhelmed filtering systems in the West Virginia American Water plant just downstream. The spill spurred a dayslong tap-water ban for 300,000 people.

Freedom employees were aware of the cracked, insufficient containment wall when a subsidiary bought the facility in 2001, the affidavit said. A 2008 inspection noted the deteriorated wall, but it was never fixed, the affidavit said.

In 2008, Freedom officials planned to take the old tank that leaked and two others out of commission. They never did, and the tanks were never inspected properly, the affidavit says. Former tank farm plant manager Michael Burdette, who was also charged in federal information, said he "had just not gotten around to it," according to the affidavit.

Six former Freedom officials and the company itself face federal pollution charges. Southern, who also faces fraud charges related to Freedom's bankruptcy case, could spend up to 68 years in prison if convicted.

Tinsley also ordered Southern to surrender his private pilot's license and not use his plane. He owns at least one, prosecutors said.

Tinsley denied federal prosecutors' request for a larger secured bond and other restrictions, saying the United Kingdom citizen isn't a flight risk and isn't dangerous to the community.

Prosecutors also withdrew a request to keep Southern on home confinement with electronic monitoring. Because of the size of Southern's Florida home, the monitoring device wouldn't work, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright said.

Southern's attorney, Robert Allen, said the former Freedom president wouldn't be able to pay a $500,000 bond, which prosecutors previously requested. Prosecutors have said Southern listed his net worth at $16 million in January 2014, then $9 million in August. They say they don't know where the money went, aside from a possible $1.8 million IRS payment.

Allen said the government has seized Southern's 2012 Bentley luxury car and many of his accounts. Southern has filed a motion opposing the government's push to take his car, cash and house.

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