OSHA proposes $99K fine in Williams Olefins fire

Updated at 9:00 p.m. — A federal regulator has proposed fining Williams Olefins $99,000 for safety violations in a finding that, under agency rules, could lead to a criminal investigation of a June plant explosion in Ascension Parish that killed two workers and injured at least 80 others.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Williams with six safety violations related to procedures designed to handle hazardous chemicals, in this case highly flammable propylene, the agency said in a news release Wednesday.

The workplace safety regulator deemed one of those violations “willful,” a designation that has larger significance.

If OSHA determines there has been a willful violation of safety rules that led to a death, the agency can recommend that the U.S. Department of Justice conduct a criminal investigation, according to OSHA’s field operations manual.

Spokesmen for OSHA and Williams Olefins did not return calls and emails late Wednesday for comment on whether OSHA plans to recommend a criminal probe of the June 13 blast.

Conviction for a willful violation that leads to an employee’s death can bring fines of up to $250,000 for individual, $500,000 for the company and prison time not to exceed six months, the manual says.

If OSHA’s area director decides to not recommend a criminal investigation in a case where there’s been a fatality involving a willful violation, the director has to provide documentation justifying why the case is not being referred, the manual says.

The willful violation against Williams resulted in $70,000 of the $99,000 in penalties OSHA proposed Wednesday.

“Williams Olefins violated safety and health standards which, when followed, can protect workers from hazardous chemicals,” said Dorinda Folse, OSHA’s area director in Baton Rouge, in the statement.

“It is the employer’s responsibility to find and fix workplace safety violations and to ensure the safety of its workers. Failing to do so cost two workers their lives.”

OSHA’s decision to propose the fine and cite Williams Wednesday comes just days before the six-month anniversary of the blast, which is Friday. The agency has six months to finish its investigations.

The explosion has sparked civil damage suits, a separate, pending probe by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and two state Department of Environmental Quality compliance orders. The blast was also the subject of a U.S. Senate hearing earlier in late June.

The fire from the blast killed Zachary Green, 29, of Hammond, who had been with the company less than a year. Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant, a company supervisor of operations, died in a Baton Rouge-area burn unit a day later, officials said at the time.

Though OSHA said Wednesday there were 80 injuries in addition to the two deaths, the company and others have previously reported more than 100 injuries from the blast.

Williams has 15 days to pay the fines, request an informal conference with Folse or contest the penalties with an OSHA review commission, OSHA said.

Williams officials said Wednesday afternoon they are reviewing the OSHA findings and have cooperated with the agency in a full and transparent manner.

“In addition to conducting our own internal incident investigation, we are committed to learning from OSHA’s report to further enhance safety at the Geismar plant and across our organization,” said John Dearborn, a Williams senior vice president.

The company’s Geismar location near the intersection of La. 30 and La. 3115 employs about 127 workers and specializes in the production of natural gas, ethylene and propylene, OSHA said. Williams Olefins is a subsidiary of Williams Partners LP of Tulsa, Okla.

The willful violation, according to the citation issued by OSHA, involves the company’s failure to develop and use procedures on changing and putting into service pressure vessels known as reboilers.

Investigators with OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have focused on a reboiler, or heat exchanger, that a safety board official has said “failed catastrophically” inside the Geismar complex’s propylene fractionation unit.

The fractionator refines propylene for products such as consumer plastics.

Williams said in early October that its own investigation found the ruptured reboiler released a vapor cloud that ignited.

Workers said at the time that the fire ball that resulted came with an earthquake-like explosion and sent a column of fire hundreds of feet in the air.

Williams said unexpected hydrocarbon liquid was in the reboiler while it was in standby mode. When heat was added to the reboiler, the vessel, which lacked a pressure relief equipment, ruptured.

OSHA defines a willful violation “is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard” for the law, or with “plain indifference” to worker safety.

For the willful violation to reach a criminal level, OSHA must have evidence that “clearly demonstrates that the violation of the standard was the direct cause of, or a contributing factor to, an employee’s death,” the OSHA manual says.

The five serious violations against Williams include failure to provide appropriate pressure relief for the ruptured reboiler and failure by Williams to promptly correct 12 of 32 safety deficiencies that an internal company compliance audit team found in 2010, OSHA said.

A serious violation stems from a hazard with a substantial chance of causing death or serious physical harm about which an employer knew or should have known, OSHA said.

All six citations, including the willful one, involve process safety management.

The procedures address hazards with processes and equipment using large amounts of hazardous chemicals, which in Williams’ case was propylene.

Williams officials noted Wednesday that before the June 13 explosion, the Geismar Olefins plant achieved an exceptional and long-standing safety record with no lost-time accidents having occurred at the plant since 2009.

Williams Olefins plans to rebuild and expand the Geismar plant by April, Williams officials said.