Pelican Refinery exec pleads guilty to Clean Air Act violations - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Pelican Refinery exec pleads guilty to Clean Air Act violations

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) -

The Vice President and General Manager of the Pelican Refinery, 66-year-old Byron Hamilton, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to negligent endangerment charges under the Federal Clean Air Act.

It's a refinery that many residents have complained about over the eyars.

It was November 2007 when federal agents fanned across Pelican Refinery executing a search warrant. That search evidently documented unsafe operating conditions that led to charges and now a guilty plea from Hamilton, who the U.S. attorney says oversaw operations at the Lake Charles refinery from an office in Houston.

Residents like Mike Stewart, who lives down the road,  have complained for many years. "I used to, every time I could smell them putting out some obnoxious odor, I would call DEQ. So, I've called I don't know how many dozens of times," said Stewart.

Federal and state officials say the investigation found a lot of equipment that didn't work properly-- or was inadequate-- such as children's swimming pools used to contain petroleum leaks-- and a signal flare gun from Walmart used to relight the process flare at the refinery because the pilot light wasn't working right. The flare is used to burn off toxic gases. Stewart says the smells were bad . "We've complained for years. We knew there were serious problems over there and I'm glad that it's finally coming out and I'm hoping that something will finally be done about it."

According to DEQ, in 2005 and 2006 Pelican was processing sour crude that had high concentrations of H2S which is highly toxic and extremely hazardous. It smells like rotten eggs at low concentrations. Refinery workers reported smelling it and having their H2S monitors trigger on occasion. Said Stewart, "To think that you would, this day and age, that you would run an operation that shoddy and endanger people's lives, that's pretty bad."

 In pleading guilty, Hamilton admits his negligence and could face up to a year in prison and $200,000 fine on each of two counts. Hamilton's guilty plea took place in federal court in Lafayette before Judge Richard Haik. No word yet on when Hamilton will be sentenced.  Presumably the sentencing will be in Lafayette, since that's where the guilty plea took place. 

Under the Crime Victims' Rights Act, crime victims have certain rights to attend public hearings and give input to the prosecution.  Any person adversely impacted can click here to learn more about the Act or call Vicki Chance, Victim Witness Coordinator at 318-676-3600.

At last word the oil refinery was no longer operating--just an asphalt plant there.

We'll have more on this story on later editions of 7News and on kplctv.com.

Posted below are two news releases about this story - one from the Department of Environmental Quality and another from the United States Attorney's Office.

Copyright 2011 KPLC. All rights reserved.

The following is a news release from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality:

BATON ROUGE – The Vice President and General Manager of Pelican Refinery in Lake Charles pleaded guilty today to negligent endangerment charges under the federal Clean Air Act. According to the misdemeanor charges filed in federal court, Byron Hamilton, 66, oversaw operations at the refinery which resulted in the negligent release of hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide, an extremely hazardous substance into the air which placed persons in imminent danger of death and serious bodily injury. In pleading guilty, Hamilton acknowledged that his negligence in overseeing refinery operations was a proximate cause of the releases and associated risks.

According to a joint factual statement filed in federal court, Pelican Refining bypassed use of a caustic scrubber designed to remove hydrogen sulfide from emissions. In addition, a continuous emission monitoring system used to measure hydrogen sulfide emissions levels was not working properly. In order to comply with a permit issued under the Clean Air Act, the refinery was required to use certain pollution prevention equipment, but that equipment was not in proper working condition. As such, releases of pollutants into the atmosphere and at the refinery were evident.

In 2005 and 2006, Pelican processed sour crude oil which included high concentrations of Hydrogen Sulfide, or H2S, a highly toxic and flammable gas inherent in sour crude refining. H2S is an extremely hazardous substance that has the odor of rotten eggs at low concentrations. Refinery workers reported smelling H2S as well as having their personal H2S monitors trigger on occasion.  Pelican Refining had no procedure to record, track, report or mitigate H2S releases.

"Facilities operating in our backyards have a responsibility to follow the nation's environmental laws, which are designed to protect the air we breathe and the local environment," said Ivan Vikin, Special Agent in Charge of EPA's Criminal Investigation Division in Louisiana. "Today's action shows that businesses and their senior managers who choose to ignore these critical safeguards and put their employees and the public at risk will be prosecuted."

"It is disturbing that a facility operator would bypass state and federal regulations to the detriment of human health and the environment," said DEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch. "The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality continues to work with our state, local and federal partners in order to bring environmental violators to justice through comprehensive investigations, criminal enforcement actions and aggressive prosecution."

The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the Louisiana Environmental Crimes Task Force, which is comprised of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Criminal Investigation Division and the Louisiana State Police. The case is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley and the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The mission of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is to protect the environment and public health. Any persons with knowledge of any spills, releases, odors, fish kills, open burning, waste tires and any other types of environmental incidents may contact DEQ at 225-219-3640 or Toll Free 1-888-763-5424.

The following is a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office:

LAFAYETTE, LA.: United States Attorney Stephanie A. Finley announced today that the vice-president and general manager of the Pelican Refinery in Lake Charles, La., pleaded guilty to federal negligent endangerment charges under the Clean Air Act before U.S. District Judge Richard T. Haik in Lafayette, La.

Byron Hamilton, 66, oversaw operations at the Lake Charles refinery since 2005 from an office in Houston. According to the charges filed in federal court, Hamilton negligently caused the release of hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide, an extremely hazardous substance into the air which placed persons in imminent danger of death and serious bodily injury.

The federal investigation was initiated after a March 2006 inspection by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and EPA 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.

In pleading guilty, Hamilton acknowledged that his negligence in overseeing operations at the refinery was a proximate cause of the releases and associated risks. Hamilton faces up to one year in prison and a $200,000 fine for each of the two Clean Air Act counts.

According to a joint factual statement filed in federal court:

· The company that Hamilton managed had no company budget, no environmental department and no environmental manager;
· In order to comply with a permit issued under the Clean Air Act, the refinery was required to use certain key pollution prevention equipment, but that equipment 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 for over a year to use a signal flare gun purchased at Walmart to re-light the process flare at the refinery which was designed to burn off toxic gasses 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 (CEMS) designed to measure hydrogen sulfide levels in emissions was not working properly.

In 2005 and 2006, the Pelican refinery processed "sour" crude supplied by its owners that had high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (H²S), a highly toxic and flammable gas inherent to sour crude oil refining. H²S is classified as an "extremely hazardous substance." It has a characteristic odor of "rotten eggs" at low concentrations. Refinery workers reported smelling H²S as well as having their personal H²S monitors "go off" from time-to-time. Pelican Refining Company had no procedure to record, track, report or mitigate H²S releases. At higher concentrations H²S paralyzes the sense of smell so that its odor is no longer perceived and can result in death.

The government's investigation of the Pelican Refinery is continuing. Under the Crime Victims' Rights Act, crime victims are afforded certain statutory rights including the opportunity to attend all public hearings and provide input to the prosecution. Any person adversely impacted is encouraged to visit http://www.justice.gov/usao/law/vicwit/index.html to learn more about the Crime Victims' Rights Act or you may contact Vicki Chance, the Victim Witness Coordinator for the Western District of Louisiana U.S. Attorney's Office, at 318-676-3600.

The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the EPA Criminal Investigation Division in Baton Rouge and the Louisiana State Police, with assistance from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The case is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley and federal environmental prosecutors Richard A. Udell, Christopher Hale and Rocky Piaggione of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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