LAFAYETTE — The vice president of Pelican Refinery in Lake Charles pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal negligent endangerment charges under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
Byron Hamilton, 66, who oversaw operations at the refinery from an office in Houston, had been accused of two counts of negligently causing the release of hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide, an extremely hazardous substance, into the air.
Hamilton, who was charged in June in a two-count bill of information, pleaded guilty to both counts before U.S. District Judge Richard T. Haik in Lafayette.
Hamilton faces up to one year in prison and a possible maximum $200,000 fine for each of the two Clean Air counts, the release says.
The state Department of Environmental Quality and EPA began investigating the facility following a March 2006 inspection when inspectors found unsafe operating conditions, including unpermitted releases of hydrogen sulfide; storage of crude oil in unrepaired storage tanks; failure to repair emissions monitoring and control equipment; and the use of plastic children’s swimming pools to contain petroleum leaks, according to the news release.
The two sides agreed to the following in a joint factual statement filed in court:
• The company had no company budget, no environmental department and no environmental manager.
• Equipment needed to comply with a permit issued under the Clean Air Act was either not functioning, poorly maintained, improperly installed, improperly placed into service and/or improperly calibrated, such that there were releases of pollutants into the atmosphere and at the refinery.
• It was a routine practice over a year to use a signal flare purchased at Walmart to re-light the process flare at the refinery, which was designed to burn off toxic gases and provide for the safe combustion of potentially explosive chemicals because the pilot light was not functioning properly.
• 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 designed to measure hydrogen sulfide levels in emissions was not working properly.
In the news release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the refinery processed sour crude in 2005 and 2006. The crude had high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, classified as an extremely hazardous substance that is highly toxic and flammable.
Refinery workers reported smelling the chemical as well as having their personal hydrogen sulfide monitors “go off” from time to time, the release said. The company had no procedure to record, track, report or mitigate the releases, which at higher concentrations can paralyze the sense of smell so that its odor is no longer perceived and can result in death, the release said.