NEBRASKA: Two Dead Two In Prison After Railcar Cleaning Fire

OMAHA, Nebraska, January 14, 2022 (ENS) – In a case nearly seven years old, Steven Braithwaite, Adam Braithwaite and their company Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services, NRCS, were sentenced today in Omaha for violations of worker safety standards that resulted in two worker deaths.

The two men were also sentenced for “knowing violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act involving hazardous waste, and knowing endangerment to others, knowing submission of false documents to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and perjury.”

Steven Braithwaite will serve 30 months in prison and pay $100,000 in restitution for his role in the offenses. Adam Braithwaite will serve one year and one day in prison and pay $100,000 in restitution. In addition, NRCS and the individual defendants must serve five years of probation and pay a $21,000 fine.

“Every worker, including every worker doing a dangerous job, has a right to a safe workplace,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Tragically, two workers suffered preventable deaths at Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services because of the defendants’ failure to follow the law. Today’s sentences provide a measure of justice for them and their families.”

Prosecutors said that on April 14, 2015, three NRCS workers were inside and on top of a rail tanker car, removing petroleum residue from inside the tank, when flammable gases in the tanker car ignited and exploded.

Employees Adrian LaPour and Dallas Foulk were killed and a third employee was injured.

A Safety Data Sheet for the product in the railcar described it as “natural gasoline” with a “severe” class four flammability rating, the highest rating. The data sheet indicated that the gas would ignite at zero degrees Fahrenheit and that it contained benzene, a “cancer hazard.”

Despite no test for benzene and an unacceptably high explosive gas level test at the beginning of the job, NRCS sent two of its employees into the tanker car. The employees began removing the toxic, ignitable residue, with a third employee helping from outside. The third employee pulled bucket loads of waste up through the top hatch and dumped them into a regular dumpster to be taken to a municipal landfill, even though the residue was hazardous waste.

An hour after the cleaning began, a spark caused the deadly explosion.

Steven Braithwaite was the president and majority owner of NRCS and was responsible for all phases of the business, including both environmental and worker safety issues. Adam Braithwaite was the vice president and a minority owner of NRCS. He, too, handled environmental and worker safety issues.

As the defendants admitted in their plea agreements, before the explosion, OSHA officials conducted regulatory inspections of NRCS, and cited NRCS and its principals for violating OSHA safety regulations concerning confined space entries.

Rail tanker cars are “confined spaces” under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Confined spaces are dangerous because they can be filled with toxic, explosive, or unbreathable gases.

After an inspection of NRCS, Steven Braithwaite entered into a February 5, 2015, written agreement in which he represented that NRCS had been testing for benzene since July 2014. That was a lie.

OSHA returned to NRCS in March 2015 to conduct a follow-up inspection, but Steven Braithwaite turned away the inspectors. Afterwards, Adam Braithwaite submitted falsified documents to OSHA purporting to show that NRCS had been purchasing equipment to test the contents of railcars for benzene and had taken other required safety precautions. NRCS had not been taking those steps.

Adam Braithwaite falsely testified under oath in an OSHA hearing that NRCS had been purchasing the benzene testing equipment.

Although they knew what was required, the defendants failed to implement worker safety standards, mishandled hazardous wastes violating the RCRA, and knowingly submitted false documents to OSHA during inspections as a cover up. Their decisions led to the deaths of two of their workers.

Six months after the explosion, OSHA cited the company for 33 safety violations. The agency fined the company nearly $1 million. 

On July 12, 2021, Steven Braithwaite pleaded guilty to counts 2-4 of the indictment. Adam Braithwaite pleaded guilty to counts 2-3, 8-9 and 22. NRCS pleaded guilty to counts 1-21.

“Violations of worker safety and environmental standards are sometimes belittled as merely regulatory crimes, but this case demonstrates how much those regulations do matter,” said U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp of the District of Nebraska.

“If the defendants had followed regulations they were well aware of, no one would have been inside a rail tanker with toxic gases at explosive concentrations,” Sharp said. “If they had followed regulations, buckets of hazardous waste would not have been dumped in regular dumpsters. If they had followed regulations, two men would have gone home at the end of their workdays.”

Featured image: Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services employees clean rail tank cars at the company’s Omaha facility. Undated (Photo courtesy Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services)

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