By Joel Phelps
The Arkadelphian

I got an anonymous tip back in February that there had been a sizable chemical spill at the Veolia plant in Gum Springs. After exhausting local leads to get this rumor verified, I submitted a fun little thing we journalists call a Freedom of Information Act request.

It’s a simple note, well written and specific. The fun thing is the other person or entity, with few exceptions, must comply or face penalties and perhaps even jail time.

I sent my little note to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, which a few days later responded and confirmed what we had heard. There in fact was a 6,000-gallon chemical spill. But there’s more! They also gave me documentation of previous spills that have occurred at the plant since 2019.

I reached out to the company for their side of the story. A brief exchange via email was made, and they promised comment. I still haven’t gotten their response. I guess they forgot. I have a full story typed up and ready to post, but the gentleman in me wants to give them another chance to respond. 

I need to know. If you’re letting chemicals into my river then you’d better say so.

Today marks one month since 23-year-old Erin Williams lost her life on Highway 7. There were lots of people at the scene — so many so that one person even captured the aftermath on video; that footage has been shared with Yours Truly. 

The only official thing the media could get its hands on was a Fatal Crash Summary filed and posted online by the Arkansas State Police. Their reports are vague, and understandably so (I always strive to respect the bereaved when reporting on death). But the state trooper who investigated why she was struck and killed says that “for unknown reasons” she fell from a moving vehicle.

Although there has been plenty said about what really happened, the paper trail of the official record runs cold pretty fast. There’s a sealed felony report on file at the Arkadelphia Police Department. With one officer’s name on the report, all it notes is there was an “agency assist” on the same day of Mrs. Smith’s death.

A misdemeanor report at APD references yet another tied to this case at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. I never saw anything of the such. I look at every report that’s filed and available to me, three days out of the week.

I’ve also requested, but not in writing, to listen to any 911 recordings but was told ASP was “working on that” and I couldn’t listen to it. Maybe it’s time to get that request in writing.

I placed a call to Chris Harper, the trooper who investigated the accident, through his headquarters at Troop K in Hot Springs. It’s been several weeks since I left that message, and he has yet to return my call.

I get it, I get it. He’s a state-level cop investigating what could potentially be larger than what’s on the surface. He doesn’t want anything jeopardizing his investigation. Or maybe — and I hope this is the case — my message was among the dozens he gets on his desk daily, and it simply got lost in the chaos. It’s happened to me countless times.

He’s got a job to do, just like I do. His job is to enforce the law while mine is to shed light on public matters. Well, it’s been a month and I, as a representative of the public, have yet to get any information on a case Erin’s family and friends fear will go cold. I hope Mr. Harper will call me back. I left my number for him at Troop K. It’s 501-304-2134.

I need to know. If you’re onto something big then you’d better say so.

Categories: Voices

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4 replies »

  1. I appreciate your need to know; I’d like to know too. Please keep working to unearth the truth…and then report it. As it often seems, folks have been jaded for so many decades in and around Arkadelphia; is it even possible to find the truth any more?

  2. It’s sad when I heard rumors of the chemical spill and was assured by one of the plant supervisors it did not happen. I live in Richwoods and watch the barrel burring spot grow and grow daily.

  3. Keep up the good work trying to connect the dots. This offers an excellent overview of how difficult it is for journalists to operate now. Unfortunately, too many in public roles forget that part of their responsibility is to communicate with the public.

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