- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Ashland Inc. pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to criminal charges involving a May 1997 fire and explosion at its former Minnesota refinery, and agreed to pay more than $7 million in fines and restitution.

Justice Department officials said the firm pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to two criminal counts: negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act and submitting a false certification to environmental regulators.

Under the terms of a plea agreement, Ashland will pay restitution to the victims. The primary victim, a former Ashland employee and member of the Emergency Response Team, will receive $3.5 million and medical coverage for himself and his family. Each of the other four Ashland employees injured in the fire will receive $10,000.

"This case embodies the Justice Department's commitment to holding accountable environmental offenders for their criminal deeds that harm both people and the environment," said Assistant Attorney General Tom Sansonetti, who heads the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Department officials said Ashland also will pay a criminal fine of $3.5 million and sponsor a workshop at a national petroleum conference dealing with the Clean Air Act's performance standards for petroleum wastewater systems. The company also must take out full-page notices in the two major newspapers acknowledging its guilt, 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.

They said the firm also agreed to 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 help ensure this type of incident never again occurs. This project is estimated to cost $3.7 million.

Department officials said the case began with a fire and explosion 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.

They said that for years, plant personnel had run a pipe from a crude oil unit exchanger across a dirt road and under one of the system's manhole covers directly into the sewer. This allowed hydrocarbon vapors to escape from the manhole, reach an ignition source and flash into a large fireball.

Department officials said Ashland personnel, including the plant's ERT, responded to the scene along with several fire departments from nearby towns. The initial fire was suddenly extinguished just as additional ERT members were responding to the firefighting effort.

Shortly thereafter, they said, a large eruption of liquid hydrocarbon shot out of the manhole. The liquid came into contact with another ignition source, and immediately ignited into a fireball engulfing the ERT teams and the area.

Several Ashland employees were injured, one very severely.

In federal court yesterday, Ashland admitted that 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 hazardous substance to be released, placing another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.

Ashland also admitted it submitted a certification to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in July 1997 that falsely stated that the sewer system complied with the Clean Air Act, although it failed to disclose the unsealed manhole cover, the resulting fire or the extensive corrective action undertaken in response to the fire.

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