Fatal accident after chemical leak in Big Lake to cost West Texas gas company millions
SAN ANGELO — A West Texas oil and gas corporation will have to pay millions of dollars in fines after pleading guilty in federal court to violating the U.S. Clean Air Act, in which a Big Lake resident died and another was injured.
Five subsidiaries of West Texas Gas Inc., which involves seven Texas gas processing plants and one in New Mexico, reached a settlement with the United States, according to a Department of Justice news release on Friday.
The allegations stated the company violated the US Clean Air Act, which caused danger to employees and the environment.
"West Texas Gas’ Clean Air Act violations cost lives," said Todd Kim, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
"Today’s settlement sends a strong message to the 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," Kim said.
What led to complaints against West Texas Gas Inc.?
The civil complaints filed against WTG Procession L.P., WTG South Permian Midstream LLC and Davis Gas Processing Inc. stated both companies violated section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act and chemical accident prevention regulations.
Prosecutors said these regulations are meant to save lives.
"(They) require owners and operators of facilities ... to perform adequate and timely equipment inspections and repairs, train employees involved in the operation and maintenance of equipment, evaluate the hazards of the chemical processing equipment and ensure that operating procedures contain clear and comprehensive instructions to safely operate process equipment," according to the release.
The Environmental Protection Agency found the violations after "a catastrophic fire" killed an employee at WTG Gas Processing, L.P.’s East Vealmoor Gas Plant in Coahoma in November 2015, records state.
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During the fire, "thousands of pounds of flammable and toxic substances were released into the air," according to the release.
Prosecutors said it would not be the last time a West Texas Gas Inc. employee died as a result of a fire causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
"This company’s blatant disregard of clean air regulations had devastating real-world consequences,” said Prerak Shah, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
In August 2018, a leak of toxic hydrogen sulfide led to the death of a Big Lake employee by exposure and another injured at the Big Lake Gas Plant L.P. The leak resulted in a criminal case against the company, which pleaded guilty to negligent endangerment and violating the Clean Air Act, records state.
The Big Lake plant also "admitted ... it knowingly failed to properly update its risk management plan following the incident," which is legally required, according to the release.
Larry Starfield, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said the company failed to protect the lives of its workers.
"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," Starfield said.
"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," he said.
What happens next for Big Lake plant, West Texas Gas?
As part of the plea agreement with the Big Lake plant, the company must pay a $3 million fine and it "acknowledged" they may have to pay restitution to the victims and the costs of supervision, according to the release.
The five subsidiaries will have to spend up to $5 million on compliance measures and over $3 million in civil penalties. The settlement also requires them to "take steps to prevent chemical accidents and improve safety," the release stated.
Another part of the settlement requires them to hire an engineering firm from outside the company to recommend actions to improve "process safety" they will have to complete at six of the eight plants. Two of the plants were closed, according to the release.
These remaining plants will have to "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 release states.
Alana Edgin is a journalist covering Crime and Courts in West Texas. Send her a news tip at email@example.com.