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Prosecutors want guilty plea hearing for WVa exec in spill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors want a judge to schedule a guilty plea hearing for the top executive charged in a massive chemical spill that contaminated West Virginia’s biggest drinking water supply last year.

In federal court in Charleston on Wednesday, prosecutors asked Judge Thomas Johnston to set the hearing for former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern.

In January 2014, a rundown Freedom Industries tank in Charleston leaked coal-cleaning chemicals into the water supply for nine counties. The spill spurred a ban on using tap water for 300,000 people for up to 10 days.

Southern faces federal pollution and bankruptcy fraud charges, which say he lied to protect his worth from legal action after the spill. Southern faces up to 93 years in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

Robert Allen, an attorney for Southern, declined to comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors generally file guilty plea hearings when a defendant has agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge or charges, said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin.

“If such a filing is not accompanied by a new or different charging document, that would tend to indicate that a defendant has agreed to plead guilty to a charge or charges in the most current indictment,” Goodwin said, speaking generally about guilty plea hearing motions.

Four other ex-Freedom officials and the company itself have pleaded guilty to federal pollution violations in the spill.

Former executive Dennis Farrell is the remaining official charged in the case. He pleaded not guilty to pollution charges.

A judge denied a motion by attorneys for Southern and Farrell to have Goodwin’s office recused from prosecuting the case. They contended that because some of the prosecutors were affected by the tap-water ban, the whole office had a conflict of interest in the case and should not be involved.

Southern and Farrell also had been arguing that the case should be moved out of West Virginia and, potentially, into North Carolina or South Carolina. Their attorneys said they can’t draw a fair jury in West Virginia because of the widespread effect of the chemical spill.

There has been no decision on moving the case yet.

A trial is slated to start Oct. 6. Five sentencing hearings are scheduled for December.

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