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Lax Regulation, Shady Owners Probed in W. Virginia Spill

Corporate malfeasance may have a played a central role in generating disaster

- Jon Queally, staff writer

A New York Times report points the finger for a chemical spill last week on the Elk River in West Virginia at a state government well-known for "lax" environmental and public safety regulations.

But a look at the individuals associated with Freedom Industries, the company that owns chemical facility where the leak occurred, shows that corporate malfeasance may have a played a central role in the disaster that has done untold damage to the river and left more than 300,000 people without access to safe drinking water.

The Times describes the state's weak regulations as pervasive:

Critics say the problems are widespread in a state where the coal and chemical industries, which drive much of West Virginia’s economy and are powerful forces in the state’s politics, have long pushed back against tight federal health, safety and environmental controls.

“West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A. interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lecturer in environmental health at George Washington University.

And investigative journalist David Gutman, reporting for the West Virginia Gazette, explores the troubling behavior of Freedom Industries executives and their history of illegal behavior, political manuevers, and past associations with other environmentally damaging industrial failures.

According to Gutman:

Freedom Industries, the company responsible for contaminating the water of 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents, was founded by a two-time convicted felon, benefited from the 2009 federal stimulus and at least two of its executives have longstanding ties to the Charleston business community.

Since the chemical spill on Thursday, Freedom Industries executives have entirely avoided media requests, except for a brief news conference Friday night.

On Sunday morning, Charles Ryan Associates, a prominent Charleston public relations firm hired by Freedom, abruptly dropped the chemical distributor as a client.

"I made the decision not to represent them," said Susan Lavenski, who was handling Freedom for Charles Ryan. She would not give any details as to why she would no longer represent the company.

Freedom Industries was founded in 1992 by Gary Southern and Carl Lemley Kennedy II, according to filings with the West Virginia secretary of state. The company's website, however, says it was founded in 1986.

"Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everybody's daily life that this incident has caused," Southern, the company's president, said at the news conference Friday night. "It has been an extremely long day, I'm having trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate it if we could wrap this thing up."

Gutman reports that Kennedy's two convictions included one for tax evasion and related crimes and another for possession of cocaine. Though he is no longer reportedly with the company, the web of relationships involved with Freedom Industries paints a troubling picture of leadership and corporate culture interested in maximizing profits with little regard for public safety.

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