By the OGJ Editors
WASHINGTON, DC, May 13 --Ashland Inc. pleaded guilty May 13 in US District Court to criminal charges related to a May 16, 1997, fire and explosion at its former Minnesota refinery, the Department of Justice said. As part of the plea, Ashland agreed to pay about $7 million in fines and restitution connected with the charges.
"Ashland continues to regret this tragic incident and the consequences it created for our employees. The safety and well-being of our employees is a fundamental responsibility, and Ashland fully accepts that," a company spokesman said. "This was a tragedy, and there were no winners."
Ashland pled guilty to two criminal counts that charged it with negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act and submitting a false certification to environmental regulators. Ashland also agreed to a deferred prosecution for a violation of the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) of the Clean Air Act.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Ashland agreed to pay restitution to the victims. The primary victim, a former Ashland employee and member of the Emergency Response Team (ERT), will receive $3.5 million and medical coverage for him and his family, and each of the other four Ashland employees injured in the fire will also receive $10,000.
Ashland will also pay a criminal fine of $3.5 million; sponsor a workshop at a national petroleum conference dealing with NSPS for petroleum wastewater systems; take out full-page notices in the two major Twin Cities newspapers acknowledging their guilt and how the case was resolved; pay $50,000 to each of the three local fire departments that responded to the fire; and add another $50,000 to their own ERT budget.
Ashland also agreed to conduct a $3.7 million upgrade all of its process sewers, junction boxes, and drains at the St. Paul Park refinery (now owned by Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC, a joint-venture between Ashland and Marathon Oil Co.) to prevent another accident.
Justice officials said the charges stem from a fire and explosion that happened on a day when workers at the company's refinery were pumping hydrocarbons into the refinery's sewer system for the purpose of treatment and recycling. The sewer system was required to have manhole covers that were sealed to prevent vapor emissions.
During the May 13 guilty plea hearing, Ashland admitted it knew the manhole cover was not sealed, as required, when it drained the hydrocarbons to the sewer and that it negligently allowed a hazardous air pollutant or extremely hazardous substance to be released, placing another person in imminent danger or death or serious bodily injury.
Ashland also admitted that it submitted a certification to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in July 1997 that falsely stated that the company's sewer system was in compliance with the Clean Air Act, although the company failed to disclose the unsealed manhole cover, the resulting fire, or the extensive corrective action undertaken in response to the fire.