Charleston Mayor: Company Behind Chemical Leak Run By 'Renegades'

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 4:08 pm

The mayor of Charleston, W.Va., says the company behind the chemical spill that essentially shut down his city for days was run by "a small of group of renegades," who in his opinion knew there were problems with the tanks that leaked dangerous chemicals into the city's water supply.

"I'm not even sure they cared what happened to the public," Danny Jones told Melissa Block on Tuesday's edition of All Things Considered.

Jones said he knows some of the people in charge of Freedom Industries and he considers them "to be a little edgy."

As we've been reporting, hundreds of thousands of West Virginians haven't been able to use their tap water for drinking, washing or bathing since last week, when state inspectors found that a tank owned by Freedom Industries leaked a chemical used in a coal-washing process into the Elk River.

The president of Freedom Industries, Gary Southern, held a press conference on Friday, saying the "incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everybody's daily life."

Jones said that as the water has been deemed safe by authorities in some parts of the affected nine counties, his city finally felt a little normal this morning.

Melissa asked him how he would convince citizens of West Virginia that the water was safe. Jones said West Virginians are anxious for water and his state has a great health department.

"This water is being tested by the hour, by the day," Jones said. "I believe if they say to go ahead, I would take their word for it."

As for what's next? Jones said his city is thinking about taking legal action against Freedom Industries, because he said the losses could be incalculable.

Jones also said authorities need to find out if the incident was "just an aberration," or something that is broader and needs attention.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Hundreds of thousands of residents of West Virginia are enduring day six without tap water and schools in four counties of the state remain closed. That's after a leak in a chemical storage tank fouled the Elk River right above a drinking water plant. Some 39,000 residents have now been given the all clear and told to flush their taps before using their water.

BLOCK: Bars and restaurants in downtown Charleston are hoping to return to normal operation following approval from the Health Department, but the economic effects of the contamination could be profound. Joining me now is the mayor of Charleston, Danny Jones. Mayor Jones, welcome to the program.

MAYOR DANNY JONES: Good afternoon.

BLOCK: And how does this spill affect your city's economy? What does the prognosis look like?

JONES: Oh, you can't imagine. It's literally locked out city up. It's starting to unhinge now, but it was really bad. As you said, every restaurant, every bar, anything that had to do with running water closed. The schools closed. The Marriott Hotel closed. It was just paralyzing emotionally and economically and everything else. And this morning was the first morning that things looked like they might be showing a return to normalcy.

BLOCK: Well, there are a number of lawsuits that have been filed already against the company that owns the chemical tank, Freedom Industries. Is the city of Charleston going to sue for lost revenue here?

JONES: You're the first person that's asked me that question and that's an option. It's not the first option I'm thinking about, but I've already talked to my city manager about it. One problem we would have here is to calculate the damage because I believe the damage is incalculable and it's going to ripple into the future, because it will cost us convention business and people will be a little gun shy about coming back in here if they think this could happen again. And, of course, my message is it couldn't happen again.

BLOCK: But how do you convince people that the water supply is, in fact, safe?

JONES: People want to drink water and people want to bathe in it. People want to use it to cook with and they're looking to take the word. And there have been a lot of precautions. We have a very capable health director here in the county. He's watching this very closely. This water is being tested by the hour, by the day. And I believe if they say to go ahead, I would take their word for it and I think the public, at large, will, too.

BLOCK: I want to ask you, Mayor Jones, about regulation and, in particular, about this company. There are reports that this tank hadn't been inspected since 1991. Three years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that West Virginia start programs to work on preventing accidents just like this one. No program like that was ever started. Has West Virginia become too friendly with industry at the expense of public safety?

JONES: No, I don't think so. If there was laxity in what you're talking about, we'll find it out. What puzzled me about this was that the three tanks were right along the river and there was a wall around them. And that there were holes in the wall, the wall had been breached and the company was just sold.

And as a condition of the company being sold, there was a million dollars put away to repair the wall. And if that's true, and I believe it to be, then they knew. I believe what we had here was a small group of renegades that were operating and I'm not even sure they cared what happened to the public.

BLOCK: When you say a small group of renegades, are you talking about the company, Freedom Industries?

JONES: I am.

BLOCK: And when you call them renegades, what do you mean by that?

JONES: I happen to know a few of them. I happen to know who they are and their backgrounds and I've talked to Gary Southern...

BLOCK: This is the president of the company, I believe.

JONES: Right. And I asked him about the wall. I asked him, I said, well, how did the chemical get in the river? And he said he didn't know. And then, I said, were aware this gentleman has a picture of the wall and it's deficient? And he said, well, yes, I am. And so I caught him in a white one right there.

And then, there are some other folks that have been involved in this and I consider them to be a little edgy. And all this will come out. We have a very capable United States attorney. I'm sure that if there were any environmental regulations breached from a criminal perspective, I can promise you, Booth Goodwin will do his job.

BLOCK: That's the U.S. Attorney for West Virginia.


BLOCK: Well, given what you're saying about this company and their concern or lack of concern about public safety, what's your message to the people of Charleston?

JONES: This has been a very trying time for us and these folks have been brave and patient. I hope that this was something that won't be repeated. I think that may be what is good that comes out of this, that we will be on guard, that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection will be on guard and we need to find out if this was just an aberration.

BLOCK: Mayor Jones, thanks for your time.

JONES: All right. It's good to talk to you.

BLOCK: That's Mayor Danny Jones, the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.