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Judge approves Freedom evidence-collection request

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bankruptcy judge approved a request from Freedom Industries on Tuesday to hire a company to help collect and preserve its electronic documents, like cell phones and emails.

The documents from current and former Freedom officials must be collected to comply with subpoenas issued by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office and other agencies investigating the company after a Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River fouled the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians, an attorney for the company said.

Freedom will pay Vestige an estimated $42,500 to collect, restore, catalog and preserve the evidence, according to Steve Thompson, an attorney for the company.

Freedom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Jan. 17. Chapter 11 allows a company to reorganize and continue operating, but during a hearing last month, Freedom's attorney said the company would soon shut down.

Goodwin is conducting a criminal investigation of the leak. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board also is examining the incident.

Vestige has already started collecting the evidence, Thompson told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson.

"They started, I believe, when the subpoenas were first issued by the U.S. Attorney's office," Thompson said.

A federal grand jury in Beckley started meeting about the leak in January, officials have said. Federal hazardous materials investigators in January climbed into the tank where the leak occurred.

A tank at the company's Barlow Drive location leaked Crude MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, into the river. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is overseeing the cleanup, which is being carried out by Freedom Industries and contractors for the chemical company.

The hole in the tank "appears to have come from an object piercing upwards through the base of the affected storage tank," according to bankruptcy documents filed by Freedom.

There are about 240 unsecured creditors to whom Freedom owes money. Many of the unsecured creditors are those who filed lawsuits against the company before its bankruptcy filing. There are at least 30 lawsuits against Freedom.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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