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Aftereffects Of W.V. Chemical Spill Still Felt Months Later

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As 2014 winds down, we're revisiting some of this year's big stories. And we wanted to check in on the aftermath of the chemical spill in West Virginia.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In January, chemicals used to clean coal leaked into the Elk River, fouling the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in and around Charleston. Just yesterday, four former executives of that chemical company were indicted on federal charges for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette has been following this story intensively. And he joins us now. Welcome back to the program, Ken.

KEN WARD: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And remind us first just how bad this leak was.

WARD: Well, it was about 10,000 gallons of a chemical named MCHM. What made it especially bad is that we don't really know very much about it. You know, people here went for days, some people up to a week, with - under a do-not-use their water; don't drink the water; don't bathe with it; don't cook with it. For months after the spill, there was a significant number of people here that continued to not trust the water supply because they weren't sure what was in it.

BLOCK: Do you still hear that from people?

WARD: You know, when you go to the grocery stores here, the bottled water aisles are still pretty cleared out. And I ran into someone just this morning who was telling me that he tries not to drink the water. But sometimes, he just has to because he doesn't have bottled water handy. And it gets kind of expensive after a while.

BLOCK: Well, how significant are these indictments for the former executives of the company, Freedom Industries, that were handed up yesterday?

WARD: One of the interesting things about the criminal cases is that several of the individuals who were running the company were charged with violations of the Clean Water Act, which are misdemeanors and punishable with - if they're convicted, punishable with only up to one year in prison. The really hefty charges are those filed against the former president of Freedom Industries, Gary Southern, who was charged - along with violating the Clean Water Act for the spill is also charged with a long list of counts of various types of bankruptcy fraud and wire fraud. The allegation is that he has tried to cover up his role in running the company in order to insulate his personal wealth. As these things go in our society, those financial crimes involving a bankruptcy are punishable with much more lengthy sentences. I believe his - if he's convicted on all counts, his statutory maximum would be 68 years. So I guess the moral that story is that you can pollute the water. But if you lie to a bankruptcy court or commit some sort of financial crime, you're going to face much more stiff penalties.

BLOCK: Have you seen any big, statewide changes that have come as a result of this spill?

WARD: The biggest move that was made here as a result of the chemical leak at Freedom Industries was passage by the legislature of an incredibly strong bill to regulate aboveground storage tanks and to protect drinking water. The legislature here is generally considered friendly to the oil and gas and chemical industries. But this bill was something that those industries weren't very happy with. And the legislature passed it and the governor signed it anyway. Of course, in November, both houses of our legislature flipped from Democrat to Republican. And the new leadership that will take over in January is already talking about changes they'd like to make in that bill. And so we'll be watching to see just how far they're willing to go in weakening that legislation.

BLOCK: I want to ask you, Ken, about another big West Virginia story. And that was the indictment last month of the former head of the company that owned the Upper Big Branch Mine. That's the mine where 29 workers died in an explosion back in 2010. This is Don Blankenship who ran Massey Energy. How big a deal is that?

WARD: It's got to be the biggest white collar crime case in the history of West Virginia. Don Blankenship was an incredibly powerful man in the coal industry and in politics here. He's facing, if he's convicted, 31 years in prison. There's an important kind of tie-in with Freedom Industries and the chemical spill here, where the U.S. attorney in southern West Virginia, Booth Goodwin, is actually going out and trying to find people that he believes are responsible for chemical leaks and for mine explosions and bringing charges against the individual officers of those companies and trying to send those people to jail. And that's really a remarkable turn of events here in the state where these industries have really run things for so long.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Ken Ward, Jr. He's with the Charleston Gazette. Ken, thanks very much.

WARD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.