The issue of water sanitation has catapulted to the front of the public eye following the mass lead poisoning of thousands of innocent citizens in Flint, Michigan by their negligent governor. Many looked to the ongoing trial of Freedom Industries CEO Gary Southern, a man whose company contaminated the Elk River – and the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians- with 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM pollutant in January 2014, to see what kind of message our justice system would send to America about punishing those who put public health at risk in the pursuit of profits.
The trial concluded today, and it was not encouraging for the American people or for the environment. After a lengthy trial, U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston handed down the lightest possible sentence – one month in jail and a fine of $20,000. An incredible slap on the wrist for a man who was guilty of violating the Clean Water Act and later “charged with bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud, and lying under oath during the company’s bankruptcy proceeding.” ThinkProgress reports that FBI Special Agent James F. Lafferty “said in a sworn affidavit that Southern, in an attempt to protect his personal fortune of nearly $8 million and shield himself from lawsuits, developed a scheme to distance himself from the company and ‘deflect blame’ to other parties.”
In one of the most bizarre miscarriages of environmental justice this nation has ever seen, and with consideration of all this evidence that clearly indicated a conspiracy to dodge the blame for his former company’s massive chemical spill, Judge Johnston still was able to say with a straight face that “this defendant is hardly a criminal. I stand by that statement.” But not only did he lie under oath, he “lied in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to protect his personal wealth from Freedom’s creditors and from spill victims who had filed civil court lawsuits over the contamination.”
Johnston was appointed to this court by President George W. Bush in 2005. It is absolutely inconceivable how he could hand down such a light sentence in the face of federal prosecutors who were demanding three years in prison for his shady schemes to get away with it all. Although it perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise – the Charleston Gazette reports that “only one of the only one of the five former owners and other officials from Freedom Industries who pleaded guilty to spill-related criminal charges has been sentenced to any jail time. That defendant, former co-owner and longtime Freedom president Dennis Farrell, received 30 days, the minimum sentence allowed.”
The fossil fuel industry, the main source of jobs in poverty-stricken West Virginia, have been able to get away with obscene pollution crimes for years. “This happens all the time. The coal companies are using stuff here that would absolutely eat the skin off of your body. This time, it ended up in the water supply, and the world knows about it now. But it happens all the time” says Maria Gunnoe of Boone County, WV. It is an absolute travesty that the money and influence of the fossil fuel industry has shielded them from their terrible crimes for so long – and that the regulations set down by the Environmental Protection Agency are treated with such callous disdain by the very men who are supposed to serve justice to those who break the laws so flagrantly.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.