Petrochemical Company Pleads Guilty to CAA Violations, Fined More than $30 Million

May 28, 2024
The EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice announced the filing of a felony criminal charge and related civil complaint and consent decree under the Clean Air Act against TPC Group LLC, a Texas petrochemical company. TPC Group also entered a guilty plea today to a one-count information charging the company with a violation of the Clean Air Act before U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn for the Eastern District of Texas.
The filings address explosions that caused injuries, evacuations and significant air pollution. The company has agreed to pay over $30 million in criminal fines and civil penalties and spend approximately $80 million to improve its risk management program and improve safety issues at TPC Group’s Port Neches and Houston facilities.
According to information provided in court, on Nov. 27, 2019, two explosions at TPC Group’s Port Neches facility prompted evacuations of thousands of residents from the City of Port Neches and surrounding areas, released more than 11 million pounds of extremely hazardous substances and caused more than $130 million in offsite property damage and other impacts to human health and the environment. Four employees and one contractor suffered injuries including concussions, burns, perforated eardrums, tinnitus and cracked teeth.
“TPC recklessly risked the lives of thousands of Port Neches residents and illegally released millions of gallons of extremely hazardous substances into the environment,” said David M. Uhlmann, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s criminal and civil settlements hold TPC accountable for endangering the Port Neches community and require the company to invest approximately $80 million to improve safety at TPC Group facilities. These settlements highlight the strong partnership between EPA’s criminal and civil enforcement programs and demonstrate EPA’s emphasis on a more strategic and collaborative approach to enforcement and compliance assurance.”
“When a disaster happens like at Port Neches, public safety is paramount,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “TPC Group’s knowing failure to comply with the chemical accident prevention provisions of the Clean Air Act at its Port Neches and Houston facilities placed its workers, neighbors and the environment in danger. Community members have expressed concerns about potential explosions happening at TPC Group’s Houston facility, like what happened in 2019 at Port Neches. Importantly, today’s criminal plea and civil settlement includes safety requirements that will help prevent future incidents.”
TPC Group’s facility produced the hazardous chemical Butadiene, which is used in the production of tires, latexes and plastics. Butadiene can form a “popcorn polymer,” which can grow at an accelerating rate and cause catastrophic events, including explosions and fires. The company was aware that this polymer was forming in some of its production lines, and the risks it posed, but failed to take necessary measures to prevent the explosion.
An initial explosion occurred at the facility’s South Unit. A secondary explosion followed, and a series of fires erupted at the facility which blew contaminants into the air. As a result of the explosions, mandatory evacuations were ordered for residents within a four-mile radius of the facility, voluntary orders to shelter in place were issued for residents in the surrounding area and local schools were closed for multiple days to allow buildings to be cleaned, repaired and inspected.
The company has agreed to pay $18 million in criminal fines. The plea agreement also includes a one-year term of probation and publishing of a public apology. The $12.1 million in civil penalty payments will be made through bankruptcy proceedings. TPC Group will also spend approximately $80 million to improve its risk management program and improve safety issues at both facilities.
TPC Group has been criminally charged and pleaded guilty to knowingly failing to implement its own written operating procedures, including monthly flushing of production lines that would have prevented the explosion. Clean Air Act regulations require planning to prevent accidental releases of hazardous chemicals and makes implementation of those plans mandatory.
The civil complaint includes 27 claims and counts – some of which included numerous violations – against TPC Group for violations of the Clean Air Act at its Port Neches facility, including numerous violations that led to the 2019 explosions. The Port Neches facility is now used for storage purposes only. The civil complaint also includes 26 claims and counts against TPC Group for Clean Air Act violations at the company’s Houston facility, including failing to promptly take corrective actions for hundreds of pieces of process equipment. And failing to address similar conditions that led to the Port Neches explosions.
Under the proposed civil consent decree, TPC Group is required to update safety information for equipment at its Port Neches and Houston facilities to ensure that they are designed, maintained, inspected and operated in a safe manner. TPC Group must overhaul its process hazard analysis program to ensure prompt completion of all corrective actions and remedial measures to mitigate hazards at the facilities. TPC Group will also update operating procedures and training for its workers and contractors. TPC Group has agreed to audit and revise their emergency shutdown procedures and implement key performance indicators.
The company will now provide incident investigations to EPA and release incident report information to the public on a publicly available website. The consent decree requires TPC Group to conduct an audit of the relief system design at the Houston facility to ensure the system can handle all appropriate scenarios.
TPC Group will also install and continually use air monitors at the fence line of each facility and in the neighboring communities. Data from the air monitors will be available on TPC Group’s website. TPC Group agreed to conduct an inherently safer technology review to identify safer technology alternatives that minimize or eliminate the potential for accidental chemical releases. TPC Group is required to host community meetings to inform the community about risks associated with its facilities, share evacuation routes, and share information about how to properly shelter in place.
Under section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, facilities like TPC Group’s in Port Neches and Houston must identify hazards, design and maintain a safe facility, minimize the consequences of accidental releases that do occur and comply with regulatory prevention measures. Failing to comply with these requirements increases the risk of accidents and threatens surrounding communities that are commonly overburdened with pollution.
EPA investigated this matter and received extensive cooperation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). On the date of the explosion, a Unified Command was established that included Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management, the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and TPC Group. If you know of an unsafe industrial situation or an environmental violation, report it at EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) page.
The proposed consent decree was lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. The consent decree and information on how to submit a public comment are also available on the Justice Department’s website.
Norfolk Southern Faces $310 Million Settlement for East Palestine Train Derailment
The EPA and U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement valued at over $310 million with Norfolk Southern Railway Company holding the company accountable for addressing and paying for the damage caused by the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. If the settlement is approved by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Norfolk Southern will be required to take measures to improve rail safety, pay for health monitoring and mental health services for the surrounding communities, fund long-term environmental monitoring, pay a $15 million civil penalty, and take other actions to protect nearby waterways and drinking water resources.
Together with other response costs and rail safety enhancements, Norfolk Southern estimates that it will spend more than $1 billion to address the contamination and other harms caused by the East Palestine derailment and improve rail safety and operations.
In the hours following the derailment, EPA personnel arrived on site, and they have remained there to ensure that the people of East Palestine are protected and have the most up-to-date information. In those early days, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan promised that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable for its actions. Since then, as EPA and DOJ pursued a strong enforcement action to deliver on that commitment, EPA has continued to stay engaged in the community, directing cleanup activities, collecting air, water and soil samples, and participating in community meetings. The Administration has led a robust, multi-agency effort—including the Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services—to fulfill President Biden’s commitment to “supporting the people of East Palestine and all those affected in surrounding areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania every step of the way.”
“No community should have to experience the trauma inflicted upon the residents of East Palestine,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “That’s why President Biden pledged from the beginning that his Administration would stand with the community every step of the way. Today’s enforcement action delivers on this commitment, ensures the cleanup is paid for by the company, and helps prevent another disaster like this from happening again. Because of this settlement, residents and first responders will have greater access to health services, trains will be safer, and waterways will be cleaner.”
“The President issued an executive order which promised to address the disaster’s long-term effects and to hold Norfolk Southern responsible for its train derailing and the burning of hazardous chemicals in East Palestine. This settlement helps fulfill that promise,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer. “Importantly, those who will most directly benefit from this settlement are those who were most directly affected by the disaster. And the rail safety commitments will help prevent future catastrophic railway events.”
Today’s settlement follows a complaint filed by the United States against Norfolk Southern in March 2023 for unlawful discharges of pollutants and hazardous substances caused by the train derailment. In February 2023, EPA issued a unilateral administrative order, holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the damage done to the community. The order required cleanup of spilled substances and impacted soils, as well as payment of all costs to the U.S. government. EPA also issued an order under the Clean Water Act to clean up oil spilled into the surrounding waterways. Since then, EPA has been directing and overseeing the extensive cleanup activities.
In total, Norfolk Southern estimates that it will spend more than $1 billion to address the contamination caused by the East Palestine derailment and improve rail safety and operations, which includes this settlement with the United States valued at over $310 million, as well as around $780 million in environmental response costs incurred by Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern has estimated its costs since the derailment will exceed $200 million in rail safety enhancements, including those required by this settlement.
To help ensure that no community goes through what East Palestine residents have faced, the settlement also requires Norfolk Southern to improve coordination with government officials and other stakeholders during emergency responses. Specifically, Norfolk Southern will create and adopt a procedure for coordinating with first responders and government officials, where appropriate, before restoring and reopening tracks for use after a derailment involving spilled hazardous material. Norfolk Southern will also create and adopt a procedure for coordinating with government officials and other stakeholders in advance of any vent and burn proposed by the company.
Under the settlement, Norfolk Southern has agreed to:
  • Spend an estimated $235 million for all past and future costs, so that cleanup efforts can continue and the company, rather than taxpayers, covers the cost.
  • Pay a $15 million civil penalty to resolve the alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
  • Pay $25 million for a 20-year community health program that includes medical monitoring for qualified individuals and mental health services for individuals residing in affected counties – including those in Pennsylvania – as well as first responders who worked at the site, and a community facilitation plan to assist community members in using the benefits of the program.
  • Spend approximately $15 million to implement long-term monitoring of groundwater and surface water for a period of 10 years.
  • Pay $15 million for a private drinking water monitoring fund that will continue the existing private drinking water well monitoring program for 10 years.
  • Implement a “waterways remediation plan,” with an estimated budget of $6 million, for projects in Leslie Run and Sulphur Run that will prioritize addressing historical pollution, reducing non-point source pollution through infrastructure upgrades and stormwater management projects, and restoring aquatic and riparian habitat.
  • Pay $175,000 for natural resource damages, to be used by the United States to restore, rehabilitate, replace, or acquire the equivalent of the natural resources injured as a result of the derailment.
In addition, the consent decree requires Norfolk Southern to undertake projects to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail, which will include installation of additional devices to detect overheated wheel bearings early enough to prevent derailments like the one that happened in East Palestine. All told, Norfolk Southern has estimated its costs dating from the derailment will exceed $200 million in rail safety enhancements.
The proposed settlement, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, is subject to a minimum 30-day public comment period and final court approval. The details of today’s settlement are available on the Justice Department’s website.
EPA Settles with Massachusetts Solar Company for Construction General Permit Violations
The EPA has settled with Navisun, LLC, a solar energy company based in Hingham, Massachusetts, for alleged violations of the Construction General Permit (CGP), related to stormwater discharges from construction activities. Under the settlement, the company will pay a penalty of $25,000 to resolve the allegations of the two alleged violations.
"Great strides have been made in clean energy production, especially when it comes to solar power. However, clean energy development must be done in environmentally sound ways, and this proposed penalty and subsequent settlement reinforces the commitment we have to our communities and to neighbors." said EPA New England Regional Administrator David W. Cash. "We will do what we can to support private companies that are undertaking clean energy development, but we will also continue to demand adherence to environmental standards, ensuring that no corners are cut, and that no environmental sacrifices are made while undertaking clean energy growth."
EPA alleged that Navisun, LLC violated the terms of the CGP, for stormwater discharges from construction activities at the company's solar farm development site in Acushnet, MA. In late 2022, the stormwater basin at the site failed, leading to discharge of sediment-laden water in two separate storms; the sediment from these discharges impacted a neighbor's pond and well water.
Navisun improved its site controls upon pressure from the Town of Acushnet's local Conservation Agent following the failure, and there were no significant issues when EPA inspected the site in early 2023. An inspection by Acushnet's Conservation Commission a few months later, however, discovered Navisun's failure to stabilize large areas of the site; Navisun subsequently has stabilized the remainder of the site.
Want to learn more about stormwater regulations? Visit our YouTube channel: Does my site qualify for a No Exposure Exclusion with Stormwater?
Zwanenberg Food Group Agrees to Pay $1.7M in Federal Penalties, Invest $1.9M in Safety
Zwanenberg Food Group USA, Inc., one of the world’s leading suppliers of processed foods, agrees to pay $1.7 million in federal penalties and invest $1.9 million in safety improvements at its Cincinnati plant to resolve hazards found during several investigations by OSHA.
The safety improvements are included in a settlement agreement, and the matter will be resolved with a final order by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission on June 13, 2024.
The agreement resolves OSHA citations issued to Zwanenberg in September 2022 and April and December 2023, after investigations into the cause of injuries suffered by two temporary workers at the plant. Agency inspectors determined the company exposed workers to hazards by allowing machinery to operate without required safety guards during production and not de-energizing equipment during sanitation operations.
"By agreeing to make extensive safety improvements and work with OSHA and industry experts to address workplace hazards, Zwanenberg Food Group will be better equipped to ensure the safety and protect the lives of current employees and future workers at its Cincinnati production facility," said OSHA Regional Administrator Bill Donovan in Chicago. "Through increased safety measures and regular reporting, we will hold Zwanenberg leadership accountable for changing their corporate culture as they work with industry experts to develop and continually test safety measures and train employees to recognize hazards."
As part of the settlement, Zwanenberg will make the following safety improvements:
  • An analysis by an independent third-party auditor of all equipment.
  • Develop and re-write lockout/tagout procedures for all equipment.
  • Enhance machine guarding.
  • Train employees on the new machine safety procedures, including lockout/tagout.
  • Ensure each employee uses and applies their own HASP lock during third-shift sanitation.
  • Transition most of its workforce to permanent employees within six months.
  • Meet with OSHA at least quarterly to discuss safety and health issues.
  • Retain a third-party consultant to audit all personal protective equipment, hazardous communication and lockout/tagout programs.
  • Continue the company’s recently adopted "Pre-Startup Safety Review"
  • Conduct an independent audit of its safety training programs.
  • Implement a "Stop Work for Safety" program including awards and recognition.
  • Continue its "Near-Miss Reporting Program" and daily discussions of issues at production meetings.
  • Implement a learning management system for all employees and schedule mandatory monthly computer-based safety training.
  • Conduct on-board safety training for all new employees.
  • Develop a corporate wide safety and health management system that includes input from management and workers and the creation of a safety committee.
"Zwanenberg Food Group has taken important steps to improve plant safety but the work of training new and existing employees on machine safety procedures to prevent injuries never ends," said OSHA Area Director Ken Montgomery in Cincinnati. "Employers are responsible for recognizing and responding to hazards immediately and protecting workers to ensure they end their shifts safely."
Based in Cincinnati, Zwanenberg Food Group USA Inc. is a subsidiary of Holland’s Zwanenberg Food Group. Founded in 1875, the privately held company has 12 production facilities in the U.S., Netherlands and United Kingdom. Zwanenberg’s product line includes cooked ham, chili, luncheon meat, soups, stew, corned beef hash and pastas marketed under the Vietti, Southgate, Halal and other private label brands. The company employs about 175 workers at the Cincinnati facility.
EPA Finalizes Order with California Regarding San Luis Obispo Treatment Plant
The EPA has entered into an Administrative Order on Consent with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for claims of Clean Water Act violations at the California Men’s Colony drinking water treatment facility in San Luis Obispo, California. The order addresses the plant's unauthorized discharges of filter backwash water to Chorro Reservoir in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“This order ensures that the California Men’s Colony treatment plant will take action to prevent further unauthorized discharges into Chorro Reservoir and protect against the contamination of the state’s water resources,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman. “With our state partners we will continue to enforce compliance with the Clean Water Act, thereby protecting our public health and environment.”
This is the second Administrative Order on Consent entered into between the EPA and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation within the past year. In September 2023, EPA and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation entered into a separate Administrative Order on Consent to address other violations of the Clean Water Act at the California Men’s Colony. Those prior violations included discharges from the prison’s wastewater treatment system with pollutant concentrations exceeding permitted limits, and unpermitted discharges from the prison’s drinking water treatment facility.
Filter backwash discharges to the Chorro Reservoir amounted to approximately 35,000 to 70,000 gallons per day during discharge events and contained pollutants such as chlorine and sediment. Under the order being announced today, the California Men’s Colony will be required to submit a compliance plan to EPA for approval describing how it will cease unlawful filter backwash discharges to Chorro Reservoir, how it will dispose of filter backwash fluids, and how it will dispose of filter backwash sludge. The California Men’s Colony will be required to implement the plan upon its approval by EPA, and the plan will become an enforceable part of the Administrative Order on Consent.
News Links
Trivia Question of the Week