Michigan Company Agrees to Pay $6.2 Million to Settle Safety Violations

The state says three workers lost their lives last summer because ATOFINA Chemical Inc. didn't prepare for the emergencies inherent when using dangerous chemicals.

The families of three workers who died in a catastrophic incident on July 14, 2001, at the ATOFINA Chemical Inc. Riverview facility might be sleeping a little easier these days. They know that employees who continue to work at the facility will be safer, thanks to a settlement agreement reached between the Michigan Department of Consumer & Industry Services (CIS), the company and the Paper, Allied- Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) International and its Local No. 6-0591.

CIS Director Kathy Wilbur said the company agreed to a combined total of $6.2 million in penalties, safety enhancements, and the resolution of multiple violations. The settlement closes a seven-month investigation under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA) of the ATOFINA accident. This is the second-largest monetary sanction ever levied in Michigan as a result of a MIOSHA investigation.

"This devastating accident demanded the immediate action of a well-executed emergency response plan," said Wilbur. "Unfortunately, lives were lost because management did not diligently prepare for the emergencies inherent when using dangerous chemicals. The good news is that this agreement has the potential to protect the future workers at all ATOFINA sites from such tragic consequences."

Edwin Wrobleski, Kenneth Cox and Terry Stein were killed when workers were mixing two chemicals, methyl mercaptan and chlorine, which were stored in two rail cars. CIS investigators believe that during the mixing process, a worker opened a valve that should have remained closed. Then, a faulty valve on one of the rail cars leaked, causing nearly 74 tons of methyl mercaptan to explode and start a fire.

The resulting fire was so hot that it burned through a hose on a nearby tank containing chlorine, which began leaking, creating a worse hazard.

The agreement is written so that ATOFINA escapes liability and criminal prosecution by the state. The deal is similar to one the state struck with Ford Motor Co. after the River Rouge power plant explosion killed six workers.

"The past nine months have been a very sad time in this plant''s history," said Philadelphia-based ATOFINA in a statement released when the settlement was announced.

The settlement agreement includes a MIOSHA penalty of $500,000 and abatement of all cited hazardous conditions. The agreement also includes the following key activities:

  • Develop and implement programs to monitor, evaluate and improve the process safety management procedures and hazard analysis at a cost of $800,000.
  • Fund an enhanced emergency response training program at a cost of $250,000.
  • Evaluate process changes and implement 13 specified improvements to enhance the safety of the workplace and the community at a cost of $2,375,000.
  • Construct an employee safety training center, named after the deceased workers, to be called The Cox, Stein, Wrobleski Center. Estimated cost: $250,000.
  • Provide information regarding health, environment and safety issues at the facility at an open house for the community. Estimated cost: $10,000.
  • Make donations to four local municipalities for the purpose of funding community emergency notification systems at a cost of $200,000.
  • Donate equipment to certain local schools/school districts to assist them in timely awareness of chemical and other emergencies. Estimated cost: $5,000.
  • Provide training for eight Riverview Township firefighters in coordination with the facility''s Emergency Response/Fire Brigade Training at a cost of $30,000.
  • Promote the establishment of programs to achieve ongoing improvements in workplace safety and process safety in other ATOFINA facilities. Estimated cost: $1.5 million.
  • Establish an $80,000 scholarship fund in memory of the deceased. Reimbursement the state $200,000 for response to third-party litigation.

"This agreement cannot reclaim the lives lost in this terrible accident," said CIS Deputy Director Dr. Kalmin Smith, who helped negotiate the agreement. "It can, however, offer comprehensive workplace protection to ATOFINA''s workers by dedicating significant resources to safety improvements, rather than lengthy litigation."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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