CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The man who became the face of the 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents in parts of nine counties was sentenced Wednesday afternoon to spend a month in prison.
Gary Southern, the former president of Freedom Industries, apologized during his sentencing hearing after previously pleading guilty to federal environmental crimes.
“Everyone knows me from an extremely poor television interview. I was very sick and intimidated.” Southern said in court looking back to that hastily called news conference the day after the spill. “I am truly sorry.”
Besides the month in federal prison, U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston handed down a $20,000 fine. The judge called the news conference a “public relations disaster” that had “absolutely nothing to do with this case.”
Southern’s attorney Robert Moore mentioned several times in court that his client was never an owner of Freedom and that he was wrongly portrayed in the media.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright told the judge Southern was an executive that wanted to “have his cake and eat it too” by taking full responsibility for his actions, but then downplaying his role with Freedom.
“He should not get the same kind of departure as any other defendant,” Wright said. “Emotions ran high and they still do,” he said about the water crisis.
Southern, in his position at Freedom, oversaw the company that owned the tank farm on the Elk River in Charleston on Jan. 9, 2014 where the chemical MCHM spilled into the river and forced a Do Not Use water order to be issued to customers of West Virginia American Water Company.
Out of the thousands of residents affected by the spill, two of the victims spoke out in court. Both Karan Ireland and Angie Rosser asked the judge for the maximum prison time of three years.
“I’m of course disappointed,” Ireland told reporters. “In the end, he is going to get his Bentley back and there’s something about hearing the fact that he was taking a private plane back to Florida. That’s disconcerting for me and, I would assume, for other people in the community.”
Before the Do Not Use order was issued, Ireland said she took a shower and became sick. She had a deep chest cough, chills and stomach aches.
“It totally disrupted our lives. It threatened the public health, it impeded our economy and I get emotional still thinking about the impact that it had on me personally,” she said.
Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said she would’ve wanted to see Southern behind bars for much longer.
“I think a stronger sentence and not more than one month would’ve sent a stronger message that if you break the law, there are consequences,” Rosser told MetroNews. “CEOs are not above the law.”
But fear of another water emergency still lies in the minds of West Virginia families, she said. “I am definitely concerned this could happen again somewhere in this state, in this nation.”
Southern was the last of six former Freedom officials to be sentenced this month. Him and former owner and officer Dennis Farrell were the only two to receive jail time. Farrell will also spend 30 days in federal prison and pay a $20,000 fine.
Four of the remaining ex-Freedom workers avoided time behind bars. Former co-owner William Tis, former farm plant manager Michael Burdette, former vice-president Charles Herzing and former environmental consultant Robert Reynolds were each sentenced to three years probation and told to pay thousands of dollars in fines.
Freedom Industries, as a company, was also sentenced to a pay maximum fine of $900,000.