Chemical Release Brings Big Fine

Monday, January 28, 2013 @ 07:01 PM gHale

Cenex Harvest States Inc. (CHS) is facing a fine of $500,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal charge for not properly reporting the extent a chemical release during a fire in north-central Montana over three years ago.

District Judge Sam Haddon of Great Falls also sentenced CHS to make a $50,000 payment to the Phillips County Rural Fire Department as a community service.

Fines for Hazardous Chemical Exposure
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Injuries at 2 Chem Plant Incidents
Chemicals Kill Refinery Worker

Prosecutors argued a general manager from Cenex’s Milk River Cooperative in Malta, MT, downplayed the risk of a November 2009 fire that burned large volumes of herbicides, including 2,4-D.

Hundreds of cattle ended up exposed to smoke from the fire and 14 calves died of a lung ailment. CHS paid the owners of the calves for the dead animals and purchased about 475 head of cattle exposed to the smoke.

The following is an excerpt from the report from Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris A. McLean:

On November 21, 2009, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the MRC facility caught fire. The Phillips County Volunteer Fire Department Chief arrived on the scene at approximately 2:00 a.m. The Chief observed the MRC facility manager on sight moving equipment to safety. The MRC facility manager told the Chief that the building held a variety of different chemicals. The Chief told the MRC facility manager to place berms in the ditches to contain the flow of chemicals and to “get hold of a hazmat team.”

The Chief was concerned about the liquid chemicals all over the floor of the building. The MRC facility manager watched large barrels of the chemical 2,4-D go up in flames. The MRC facility manager asked the fire department to not spray water on the fire to prevent the spreading of the chemicals. The Chief left the fire scene at approximately 4:30 a.m. and observed that most of the chemicals located inside the building had burned or released to the air and ground.

The general manager for all MRC facilities arrived on the scene at approximately 3:30 a.m. Upon his arrival, the general manager took a CHS Inc. emergency response card out of his wallet and called CHS Inc.’s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager to notify him of the fire. The Environmental, Health and Safety Manager called the State of Montana Disaster and Emergency Planning Services (MDES) to report the fire at CHS Inc.’s Malta facility.

The MT DES planner that received the call understood that it was a warehouse fire and that chemicals such as glyphosate, 2,4-D and Round-up were contained in the warehouse. The MT DES planner understood from CHS Inc.’s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager that the fire was small and of no significance. The MT DES planner was not told that chemicals were released onto the ground or that the chemicals posed any risk. The MT DES planner understood the fire was under control and contained in the facility. No one from CHS Inc. placed a call to the National Response Center or the EPA Emergency Response Center in Denver, Colorado.

The manager of CHS Inc.’s Big Sandy facility also served as the safety manager for its Malta facility. This CHS Inc. manager responded to the fire scene at approximately 7:00 a.m. on November 21. The manager provided an inventory of chemicals that had been stored at the Malta facility to the Malta Fire Department. The manager was very concerned about products containing 2,4-D being toxic and dangerous when consumed in a fire.

The manager later stated that if the wind had been blowing west, towards Malta, they would have evacuated the town. Shortly after the fire, 14 calves downwind at a ranch east of Malta died of a lung ailment. A veterinarian stated that toxic smoke from the fire could not be ruled out as a cause of death. CHS Inc. paid the owners of the calves market value for the dead calves and also purchased approximately 473 head of cattle that had been exposed to smoke from the MRC facility fire.

Cleanup of the fire’s aftermath included collection of 6,750 gallons of a water/chemical mixture waste created by fire suppression efforts. Impacted soils around the facility were excavated. Approximately 130 cubic yards of 2,4-D contaminated soil was collected and held for proper disposal.

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