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Freedom Industries Calling: New Tape Reveals False Statements During Chemical Spill

Members of the FBI Hazardous Materials Response Unit along with local fire departments investigate the Freedom Industries site in Charleston, West Virginia, on Jan. 28

Photograph by Tom Hindman/Charleston Daily Mail via AP Photo

Members of the FBI Hazardous Materials Response Unit along with local fire departments investigate the Freedom Industries site in Charleston, West Virginia, on Jan. 28

This you have to hear. The West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management released the audio tape of Freedom Industries reporting the Jan. 9 chemical spill that shut down access to public water for 300,000 people in the Charleston area.

The remarkably laconic late-morning phone conversation between a company representative and a hotline operator named Laverne reveals Freedom Industries minimizing the extent of the spill and making several flat-out misstatements about what’s transpiring. It’s safe to predict that this tape will become Exhibit A in pending civil litigation accusing Freedom of negligence and in any potential criminal charges related to the spill. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston has said that it has launched a wide-ranging probe of the incident. Freedom Industries and its executives have denied any wrongdoing.

The caller from Freedom Industries, identifying himself as Bob Reynolds, says on the audio tape that the substance being released isn’t toxic or hazardous and isn’t escaping into the Elk River. A containment wall has blocked the spill from spreading, he adds. Both statements were incorrect.

Other company officials and state environmental regulators later confirmed that the coal-processing chemical MCHM does cause harm to humans. Later on Jan. 9, residents of the region were ordered not to drink, bathe, or cook with tap water because 10,000 gallons of MCHM swiftly entered the Elk River. From there it flowed into the public water-system intake a mile and a half downstream from the Freedom Industries tank farm on the banks of the Elk.

Moreover, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors, who had already arrived at the Freedom site by the time Reynolds called the spill hotline, later said they quickly discovered a 4-foot-wide stream of MCHM seeping through a cracked containment wall and into the adjacent river. In a subsequent court hearing, evidence was introduced showing that before the spill, Freedom’s management had set aside $1 million to repair the wall but the work hadn’t been started.

One of the more disturbing moments on the audio tape occurs when Laverne asks Reynolds for the full name of the chemical that’s escaping. He has to look it up. It’s 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Laverne and Bob share a casual chuckle over their mutual ignorance. Hahaha: That feeling is the hair on the back of your neck standing up.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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