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Company That Leaked Chemicals in Drinking Water Fined Only $11,000 — And That's Okay

Chemical company Freedom Industries was fined by OSHA solely for endangering its employees. Environmental fines are still to come.
July 9, 2014, 9:45pm
Photo by Foo Conner

It’s been six months since a chemical spill in West Virginia left 300,000 people without access to safe tap water for nearly a week, and the company responsible is finally starting to suffer the consequences… sort of.

Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the 10,000 gallon chemical spill into the Elk River, has just been fined $11,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).


OSHA first investigated the Freedom Industries facility the day after the spill in January. On July 3, OSHA cited the company for two violations, fining them $7,000 for using storage tanks of crude MCHM — a virtually untested, potentially toxic chemical used for cleaning coal — behind a diked wall that was not liquid tight, and $4,000 for having no railings on an elevated platform. Freedom Industries was also cited for mislabeling a chemical tank, but they were not fined.

The company declared bankruptcy shortly after the spill, which shielded them from potential lawsuits. There also haven't yet been any significant fines levied for the pollution itself.

'OSHA isn’t charged with protecting the environment or the citizens or the public. Their sole jurisdiction is protecting employees.'

However, contrary to what several outlets have reported, these citations are specifically for endangering the safety of Freedom Industries workers — not for the spill and its effect on thousands of West Virginians.

“OSHA isn’t charged with protecting the environment or the citizens or the public,” said Shell Bleiweiss, an attorney who specializes in OSHA and environmental law. “Their sole jurisdiction is protecting employees, so this is not an unusually low fine from OSHA in that context.”

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In fact, OSHA charged Freedom Industries the maximum penalty — $7,000 — for the violation concerning the MCHM tank. According to Bleiweiss, “It’s pretty unusual to see OSHA seek the max for any penalty.” The $4,000 fine was about average for that type of violation.


In 2013, the average penalty for a serious OSHA violation was $1,895, according to a May report from the AFL-CIO.

So will Freedom Industries ever be fined for the chemical spill itself? West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the US Environmental Protection Agency may levy fines, and “those penalties tend to be much higher, dollar-wise, than OSHA’s, just because of the statutory authority that those agencies have versus OSHA,” Bleiweiss said.

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However, West Virginia, home to powerful coal companies, has a reputation for going easy on violations of environmental regulations. As Evan Osnos reported in an April piece for the New Yorker, in recent years the DEP had been pushed to focus more on "compliance assistance" rather than strict enforcement of environmental protection laws.

Freedom Industries declined to comment for this story.

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