TEXAS: Gas Companies Fined Millions for Fatal Air Pollution

MIDLAND, Texas, October 1, 2021 (ENS) – Five subsidiaries of West Texas Gas Inc. will spend up to $5 million on compliance measures in a settlement that resolves U.S. government allegations that they violated federal Clean Air Act chemical accident prevention requirements at eight natural gas processing plants.

The subsidiaries will pay more than $3 million in civil penalties to resolve claims stemming from a fatal chemical accident and accident prevention program violations.

In a related criminal case, another West Texas Gas subsidiary will pay another $3 million for an incident in which one employee died. Big Lake Gas Plant LP, which operated a gas plant in Big Lake, Texas, pleaded guilty to one count of negligent endangerment and one count of violating the Clean Air Act.

“The tragic deaths due to the failure by West Texas Gas to safely manage hazardous chemicals, as required by law, demonstrates the severe dangers that these violations pose to workers, nearby communities and the environment,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement requires West Texas Gas to take concrete steps to prevent future accidents and will improve air quality in the vicinity of these facilities.”

The settlement requires the subsidiaries of this regional gas processing and transmission company serving Texas and Oklahoma to take steps to prevent chemical accidents and improve safety at the natural gas processing plants that they own and operate.

Seven of the eight plants covered in the court settlement filed today are located in Texas and one is in New Mexico. The plants use a variety of chemical processes containing toxic substances and flammable hydrocarbons, such as butane, methane and propane.

“West Texas Gas’ Clean Air Act violations cost lives,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said. “Today’s settlement sends a strong message to industry that the Justice Department will vigorously enforce Clean Air Act requirements that protect workers, neighboring communities and the environment by preventing dangerous chemical releases like these.”

Civil Case Triggered by a Fatality

The civil complaint alleges that WTG Gas Processing LP, WTG South Permian Midstream LLC, and Davis Gas Processing Inc. violated section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act and the related chemical accident prevention regulations.

The EPA identified the Clean Air Act violations addressed in today’s settlement during a series of inspections of the companies’ natural gas processing plants.

The EPA inspections began after a catastrophic fire in November 2015 killed an employee at WTG Gas Processing, L.P.’s East Vealmoor Gas Plant in Coahoma, Texas. Thousands of pounds of flammable and toxic substances were also released into the air.

Other serious fires, resulting in millions of dollars of damage, occurred at some of the companies’ other plants, and an August 2018 leak of toxic hydrogen sulfide resulted in the death of another company employee in Big Lake, Texas.

In the related criminal case against Big Lake Gas Plant LP arising out of the August 2018, the plant admitted that it negligently released hydrogen sulfide into the ambient air.

Hydrogen sulfide is a toxic gas that can compromise the human nervous system and respiratory tract and can cause life-threatening health effects if not handled properly. One employee died as a result of exposure sustained while working at the plant, and another employee was injured.

The company further admitted that it knowingly failed to properly update its risk management plan following the incident, an update required by law.

“This company’s blatant disregard of clean air regulations had devastating real-world consequences,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah for the Northern District of Texas. “Our hearts go out to the family of the employee killed in the chemical incident at the plant in Big Lake. We are proud to hold the company criminally responsible, and hopeful that the safety measures stipulated in the civil settlement will protect against similar incidents.”

Under the terms of its plea agreement, the Big Lake Gas Plant agreed to pay a $3 million fine, and acknowledged it may be ordered to pay restitution to victims, as well as the costs of supervision.

Under the settlement, the companies must hire an outside, independent engineering firm to recommend actions that the companies will complete to improve process safety at six of the eight plants.

The six plants must also implement an environmental management system to improve their compliance with all federal, state and local air pollution related requirements, not just those dealing with preventing chemical accidents. The companies have elected to permanently shut down the remaining two plants.

The settlement was lodged today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.

Featured image: Natural gas transmission lines owned and operated by West Texas Gas Inc. (Photo courtesy West Texas Gas Inc.)

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