One month and one day after Freedom Industries spilled 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk River in West Virginia, the president of the company failed to appear and testify at a hearing related to the spill. Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee traveled to Charleston on Monday for a hearing to address unanswered questions surrounding the spill, ClimateProgress reports.
Freedom Industries and other parties involved with the spill such as West Virginia American Water, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the US Chemical Safety Board were invited to attend a hearing in the state’s capitol to hear testimony from state health officials and answer residents’ questions.
“Freedom Industries’ decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said on Monday.
Residents were still not given a straight answer about whether their drinking water is safe. Officials from West Virginia American Water and the Bureau for Public Health maintained that the tap water meets safety standards, yet still refrained from calling the water safe. “Everyone has a different definition of safe,” said Dr. Letiticia E. Tierny, commissioner of the WV Bureau of Public Health.
Freedom Industries has been criticized for failing to immediately report the leak as well as for being relatively silent since the spill occurred. On January 21, twelve days after the spill, Freedom president Gary Southern told the director of homeland security and emergency response for the state DEP that another chemical not previously-reported had also spilled into the water supply.
During the last week of January, the company revised its estimate of the amount of chemicals spilled from 7,500 to 10,000 gallons. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on January 17, in order to put on hold lawsuits it faces as a result of the spill. Just a few days before that, Southern attempted to dodge a reporter’s questions during a press conference, while repeatedly swigging a bottled water.
“It’s been an extremely long day… I would appreciate it if we could wrap this thing up,” Southern said. “We actually have a lot of questions and it’s been a long day for a lot of people who don’t have water,” responded WCHS8 reporter Kallie Cart.
Southern’s press conference received widespread criticism and even prompted Freedom Industries’ public relations firm to announce that it would no longer represent the company.
“They’ve basically been out of the picture since day one of this crisis, even though they were the cause of the crisis,” Gary Zuckett, Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action, told ClimateProgress. “He [Southern] was digging this thing deeper,” he said, suggesting that it may have been in the company’s best interest for Southern not to show up at the hearing.
Meanwhile, residents are left wondering if their water supply is safe. “The heightened concern among residents exposed to the contaminated water is warranted, especially since so little is known about the effects of the chemical on humans,” noted Emmie Paulos, an attorney with the Levin, Papantonio law firm who is involved in the BP oil spill litigation.