Florida Couple Pleads Guilty to Scheme to Evade $42 Million in Duties for Illegally Importing and Selling Plywood
The former president of Port Arthur Chemical and Environmental Services, LLC (PACES) has pleaded guilty in federal court to occupational safety crimes which resulted in the death of an employee, announced Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and John M. Bales, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas.
Matthew Lawrence Bowman, 41, of Houston, pleaded guilty to violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and making a false statement. Bowman admitted to not properly protecting PACES employees from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas resulting in the death of truck driver Joey Sutter on Dec. 18, 2008. In addition, Bowman admitted to directing employees to falsify transportation documents to conceal that the wastewater was coming from PACES after a disposal facility put a moratorium on all wastewater shipments from PACES after received loads containing hydrogen sulfide. The guilty plea was entered today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn.
“Bowman’s actions showed a preference for profit above the safety of his employees, putting them and the public in life threatening situations by not properly identifying the dangerous materials PACES was handling,” said Assistant Attorney General Moreno. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce laws enacted for the protection of human health and the environment.”
“In this day and age, it seems inconceivable that workers would be exposed to the level of danger that was routine at PACES,” said U.S. Attorney Bales. “Mr. Bowman’s actions as the leader of the company were more than just cavalier, they were criminal and he is being held to account. We continue to grieve for the needless loss of life and the pain and suffering of Mr. Sutter’s family and friends. This investigation and prosecution is the result of an excellent combined effort of the identified agencies and I am grateful for their hard work.”
“The plea agreement reached today sends a strong signal to all who would illegally transport hazardous materials,” said Max Smith, regional Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General. “Working with our law enforcement and prosecutorial colleagues, we will continue our efforts to ensure safety in the transport of these materials and vigorously pursue those who violate the law.”
“Laws regarding the safe and legal handling of hazardous materials are in place for a reason – to save lives,” said Ivan Vikin, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) criminal enforcement program in Texas. “The defendant admitted that his actions directly led to the death of one of his employees. This plea demonstrates that EPA and its partner agencies, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Environmental Crimes Unit and the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, will prosecute anyone whose actions place the public at risk.”
According to information presented in court, Bowman was president and owner of PACES, located in Port Arthur, Texas, and CES Environmental Services (CES) located in Houston. PACES was in operation from November 2008 to November 2010, and was in the business of producing and selling caustic materials to paper mills. The production of caustic materials involved hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, hydrogen sulfide is an acute toxic substance that is the leading cause of sudden death in the workplace. Employers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement engineering and safety controls to prevent employees from exposure above harmful limits of hydrogen sulfide.
Bowman was responsible for approving and directing
PACES production operations, the disposal of hydrogen sulfide wastewater, and ensuring implementation of employee safety precautions. In some cases, Bowman personally handled the investigation of work-related employee injuries, directed the transportation of PACES wastewater, and determined what safety equipment could be purchased or maintained. In the cases at issue, hazardous materials were transported illegally with false documents and without the required placards. Most importantly, the workers were not properly protected from exposure to hazardous gases. The exposure resulted in the deaths of two employees, Joey Sutter and Charles Sittig, who were truck drivers, at the PACES facility on Dec. 18, 2008, and Apr. 14, 2009. Placarding is critical to ensure the safety of first responders in the event of an accident or other highway incident. Bowman and PACES were indicted by a federal grand jury on July 18, 2012.
Bowman faces up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 at sentencing. A sentencing date has not been set. Charges remain pending against PACES. The corporation faces a fine of up to $500,000 per count.
This case was investigated by EPA Criminal Investigation Division; the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality - Environmental Crimes Unit, part of the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force; the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department - Environmental Crimes Unit; the Houston Police Department - Major Offenders, Environmental Investigations Unit; the Travis County, Texas - District Attorney’s Office; the Harris County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office - Environmental Crimes Division; the Houston Fire Department; OSHA; the U.S. Coast Guard; the Port Arthur Police Department; and the Port Arthur Fire Department.
The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.