(CN) - Two former owners of a Charleston, W.Va.-based chemical transport and storage company pleaded guilty on Monday to violations that led to an extended drinking water ban for 300,000 residents.
Appearing separately before U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston, Charles Herzing and William Tis, the one-time owners of Freedom Industries, pleaded guilty to the unlawful discharge of a coal-cleaning agent into the Elk River last year.
According to prosecutors, on the morning of Jan. 9, 2014, streams of a coal-mining cleansing agent known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, were discovered to be flowing from a from Freedom Industries' Etowah facility into the Elk River.
Although 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is not considered a deadly toxin, it has been associated with liver and kidney problems.
Thee discharges were found to be leaking from a containment tank, then breaching a dike wall, and finally, running down the riverbank in at least two "discernible, confined, and discrete channels or fissures," the indictment said.
The West Virginia American Water Company operates a water treatment and distribution plant less than two miles downstream from the location of the leaks, and it is from this location that the utility draws water to supply residents and business in Charleston and the surrounding area.
Prosecutors say that pollutants from the Freedom Industries leak were drawn into the utility's water treatment facility, prompting a "do not use" advisory for residents of a nine-county area that lasted for several days.
In entering their pleas, both Herzing and Tis maintained they hadn't purposefully engaged in criminal activity, but as the heads of the company, were responsible for the lapses of their employees.
Each man now faces up to a year in prison and a fine of $25,000 per day per violation or $100,000, whichever is greater.
Additional plea hearings for some Freedom Industries' former employees are scheduled for Wednesday.
Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy protection a week after the leak was discovered.
Herzing and Tis sold the company to Pennsylvania-based Chemstream Holdings in December 2013.
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