Williams Olefins contests OSHA findings stemming from explosion at Geismar plant

Williams Olefins is contesting six workplace safety violations and $99,000 in civil penalties federal regulators proposed last month for a fatal explosion June 13 at the company’s Ascension Parish plant, Williams officials and regulators said.

The blast at Williams’ Geismar ethylene and propylene facility killed two and injured 114 after a flammable vapor cloud ignited from ruptured equipment in the company’s propylene fractionation unit, causing a massive fireball.

At the time, the plant near La. 30 and La. 3115 was undergoing expansion and 839 employees and contractors were on site, Williams officials have said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended the fines and citations Dec. 11, including one willful violation that raises the possibility of a criminal probe.

Diana Petterson, an OSHA spokeswoman, said Williams contested on Jan. 3 the citations outlining the violations.

“Additionally, whenever there are willful violations that result in a fatality, the Labor Department normally discusses the case with the U.S. Department of Justice,” she said.

OSHA is under the Department of Labor.

Walt Green, acting U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, has said that he can neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation is underway.

A willful violation happens with “intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard” for the law or “plain indifference” to worker safety, OSHA says.

At Williams, the willful violation involved failure to develop and use procedures to change and put pressure vessels known as reboilers into service.

A reboiler in the fractionation unit “failed catastrophically,” investigators have said.

Williams had 15 days from receipt of the citations to decide how to proceed. Contesting the violations means the case can go to the Washington, D.C., review commission, which assigns an administrative law judge to review the case. The independent federal commission also can choose to hear appeals to the judge’s decisions.

According to OSHA’s Field Operations Manual, four of the six violations prompted the maximum penalties allowed under law, including the willful violation. It led to a $70,000 penalty.

But, under OSHA rules, Williams also still has the option to settle the violations.

“Although a notice of contest has been filed, we anticipate future discussions with OSHA to finalize this matter,” said Tom Droege, Williams spokesman. He said the company had an informal conference with OSHA officials on Dec. 27 and had follow-up discussions early this year before the notice was filed.

He said the company continues to support investigating agencies in “a full and transparent manner.” Williams, a subsidiary of Williams Partners LP, of Tulsa, Okla., expects the rebuilt and expanded plant will be operating in April.