Cenex Harvest States, Inc. Pleads Guilty in U.S. Federal Court
The United States Attorney's Office announced that during a federal court session in Great Falls, on October 25, 2012, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong, Cenex Harvest States, Inc., (CHS Inc.), by its authorized representative, and through its attorney, pled guilty to failure to report a release of a hazardous substance. Sentencing has been set for January 22, 2013.
In an Offer of Proof filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris A. McLean, the government stated it would have proved at trial the following:
The Milk River Cooperatives' (MRC) facility at Malta is owned by CHS Inc. The MRC facility's primary business consisted of retail sales of feed and seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to local farmers. During late 2009, the herbicides stored at the MRC facility included approximately 1,800 pounds of materials containing the chemical 2,4-D.
On November 21, 2009, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the MRC facility caught fire. The Phillips County Volunteer Fire Department Chief arrived on the scene at approximately 2:00 a.m. The Chief observed the MRC facility manager on sight moving equipment to safety. The MRC facility manager told the Chief that the building held a variety of different chemicals. The Chief told the MRC facility manager to place berms in the ditches to contain the flow of chemicals and to "get hold of a hazmat team." The Chief was concerned about the liquid chemicals all over the floor of the building. The MRC facility manager watched large barrels of the chemical 2,4-D go up in flames. The MRC facility manager asked the fire department to not spray water on the fire to prevent the spreading of the chemicals. The Chief left the fire scene at approximately 4:30 a.m. and observed that most of the chemicals located inside the building had burned or released to the air and ground.
The general manager for all MRC facilities arrived on the scene at approximately 3:30 a.m. Upon his arrival, the general manager took a CHS Inc. emergency response card out of his wallet and called CHS Inc.'s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager to notify him of the fire. The Environmental, Health and Safety Manager called the State of Montana Disaster and Emergency Planning Services (MDES) to report the fire at CHS Inc.'s Malta facility. The MDES planner that received the call understood that it was a warehouse fire and that chemicals such as glyphosate, 2,4-D and Round-up were contained in the warehouse. The MDES planner understood from CHS Inc.'s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager that the fire was small and of no significance. The MDES planner was not told that chemicals were released onto the ground or that the chemicals posed any risk. The MDES planner understood the fire was under control and contained in the facility. No one from CHS Inc. placed a call to the National Response Center or the EPA Emergency Response Center in Denver, Colorado.
The manager of CHS Inc.'s Big Sandy facility also served as the safety manager for its Malta facility. This CHS Inc. manager responded to the fire scene at approximately 7:00 a.m. on November 21. The manager provided an inventory of chemicals that had been stored at the Malta facility to the Malta Fire Department. The manager was very concerned about products containing 2,4-D being toxic and dangerous when consumed in a fire. The manager later stated that if the wind had been blowing west, towards Malta, they would have evacuated the town. Shortly after the fire, 14 calves downwind at a ranch east of Malta died of a lung ailment. A veterinarian stated that toxic smoke from the fire could not be ruled out as a cause of death. CHS Inc. paid the owners of the calves market value for the dead calves and also purchased approximately 473 head of cattle that had been exposed to smoke from the MRC facility fire.
Cleanup of the fire's aftermath included collection of 6,750 gallons of a water/chemical mixture waste created by fire suppression efforts. Impacted soils around the facility were excavated. Approximately 130 cubic yards of 2,4-D contaminated soil was collected and held for proper disposal.
Congress has passed many laws regulating companies to be good neighbors to the environment. In fact, most of the laws, Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act came into existence 40 or 50 years ago. There is an existing regulatory framework to protect the public health of Montana citizens and Montana businesses," said U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter. "The failure by any individual or corporation to properly handle a chemical spill will be investigated and prosecuted in the District of Montana. The U.S. Attorney's Office will continue to strive to protect Montanans' public health and safety and the environment for generations to come."
Complete, accurate and honest reporting is essential in order to protect the public when harmful toxins are released from facilities," said Jeffrey Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of EPA's criminal enforcement program in Montana. "Following a fire and release of hazardous substances, the defendant failed to notify the proper authority as required by law." "Today's guilty plea shows that this type of conduct will be prosecuted."
CHS Inc. faces possible penalties of a $500,000 fine.
The investigation was conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division.