U.S. Department of Justice
Peter F. Neronha
United States Attorney
District of Rhode Island
December 23, 2010
SOUTHERN UNION COMPANY CONVICTION, $18 MILLION FINE
FOR ILLEGALLY STORING MERCURY IN PAWTUCKET UPHELD
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has upheld the conviction and $18 million dollar fine against Southern Union Company for illegally storing mercury at a company-owned site in Pawtucket. In October 2008, a U.S. District Court jury in Providence found Southern Union guilty of illegally storing mercury for several years at a site off Tidewater Street, near the Seekonk River. The Houston-based company owned New England Gas for several years.
The mercury was carried from an unattended and frequently vandalized building and spilled in a nearby apartment complex by three teenagers, which resulted in the displacement of 150 tenants for about two months. U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith imposed an $18 million sentence, which includes a $6 million criminal fine and $12 million in payments of various amounts to community initiatives, including the Rhode Island Foundation, the DEM Emergency Response Fund, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital.
The appeals court found that Judge Smith’s $18 million dollar sentence was reasonable in part because “Southern Union's willingness to put a densely-populated residential community, local public safety employees, and its own employees at risk by storing hazardous waste under deplorable conditions in their midst indicated great culpability; and that there was a need for a penalty substantial enough to attract the attention of large corporations.”
The court’s decision was announced by U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha; Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD); and Michael E. Hubbard, Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Area Office of the Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID).
U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha commented, “The Court of Appeals got it exactly right. Only one thing – financial pain - will prevent irresponsible corporations from polluting our neighborhoods and endangering the people who live in them. I commend the team of trial and appellate attorneys and investigators who have worked tirelessly to ensure that Southern Union be held accountable for their criminal misconduct.”
Michael E. Hubbard, Special Agent in Charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the EPA in Boston added, “This decision underscores our commitment to ensure that well financed corporations not view inner city neighborhoods as places to dump hazardous waste.”
During the trial in 2008, Assistant U.S. Attorney Terrence P. Donnelly, ENRD trial attorney Kevin Cassidy, and Dianne Chabot, an EPA-CID attorney, presented evidence that, in 2001, Southern Union began removing gas regulators that contained mercury from customers’ homes. Southern Union employees brought the regulators to a facility on Tidewater Street in Pawtucket, where the regulators, and later loose mercury, were stored in a shed. Southern Union initially hired an environmental services company to prepare the mercury for shipment to a processing facility in Pennsylvania.
The recycling and reclamation of the mercury ceased at the end of 2001. However, gas company technicians continued to remove regulators from customers’ homes, and the company continued to store at Tidewater Street both loose liquid mercury – in containers such as glass jars and a plastic jug – and regulators that still contained mercury. A local company official drafted proposals to renew the removal project, but the company never finalized those proposals or put them out to bid.
In September 2004 three youths broke into the mercury storage building and took several containers of liquid mercury. They broke some of them, spilling mercury around the facility’s
grounds, and took some of the mercury to a nearby apartment complex, where it was also spilled, contaminating the complex.
For about three weeks, spilled mercury remained undetected at the Tidewater facility and at the apartment complex. After the contamination was discovered, the apartment complex was evacuated, and its 150 tenants were displaced for two months while the mercury was cleaned up.
In addition to fining Southern Union $6 million, Judge Smith put the company on two years probation. As a condition of probation, he ordered the company to pay $11 million to the Rhode Island Foundation for the establishment of environmental remediation and education projects, and children’s health initiatives. He also ordered that the company pay $1,000,000 in $200,000 increments to the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the Pawtucket Fire Department, a fund to develop recreational projects in Pawtucket, and the DEM Environmental Response Fund.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald C. Lockhart argued the matter before the First Circuit Court of Appeals.