Louisiana Oil Company Pleads Guilty to Clean Air Act Violations, Faces $10 Million Fine

Oct. 24, 2011
A recent plea agreement reached by Pelican Refining Co. LLC, the U.S. Department of Justice and EPA will make the Louisiana coastline safer for people, wildlife, fish and yes, pelicans.

“Facilities that operate in our backyards have a responsibility to follow our nation's environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, which is designed to protect the air we breathe and the local environment,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s guilty plea shows that businesses that choose to ignore these critical safeguards and put their employees and the public at risk will face serious consequences.”

The violations were discovered during a March 2006 inspection by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which identified numerous unsafe operating conditions. Pelican also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for submitting materially false deviation reports to LDEQ, the agency that administers the federal Clean Air Act in Louisiana.

“Pelican had demonstrated a manifest disregard for accepted practices that are designed to protect human health and the environment,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “Today, Pelican faces significant penalties for its egregious violations of its Clean Air Act permit and for submitting false information to state officials."

Pelican has admitted to the following:

• Pelican had no company budget, no environmental department and no environmental manager;

• In order to comply with a permit issued under the Clean Air Act, the refinery was required to use certain key pollution prevention equipment, but that equipment was either not functioning, poorly maintained, improperly installed, improperly placed into service or improperly calibrated;

• It was a routine practice for over a year to use an emergency flare gun to re-light the flare tower at the refinery, which was designed to burn off toxic gasses and provide for the safe combustion of potentially explosive chemicals. Because the pilot light was not functioning properly, employees would take turns trying to shoot the flare gun to relight the explosive gasses;

• Sour crude oil was stored in a tank that was not properly placed into service and remained in the tank after the roof sank;

• A caustic scrubber designed to remove hydrogen sulfide from emissions was bypassed; and

• A continuous emission monitoring system (CEMS) designed to measure the hydrogen sulfide levels in refinery emissions was not working properly.

If the court sentences according to the terms in the plea agreement, Pelican will pay $12 million in criminal penalties, including $2 million in community service payments that will go toward various environmental projects in Louisiana, including air pollution monitoring. It would mark the largest-ever criminal fine in Louisiana for violations of the Clean Air Act. Pelican also would be banned from future refinery operations unless and until it implements an environmental compliance plan, which includes external auditing by independent firms and oversight by a court appointed monitor.

In addition, Byron Hamilton, the Pelican vice-president who oversaw operations at the Lake Charles refinery since 2005 from an office in Houston, pleaded guilty on July 6 to negligently placing persons in imminent danger of death and serious bodily injury as a result of negligent releases at the refinery. Hamilton faces up to 1 year in prison and a $200,000 fine for each of the two Clean Air Act counts.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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