Miami Companies and Owners Convicted of Conspiring to Tamper with Diesel Truck Monitoring Devices Required by the Clean Air Act
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Marlies Gonzalez, Special Agent in Charge, Department of Transportation (DOT-OIG), Office of Inspector General, announced that Airgas Doral, Inc. (Airgas Doral) pled guilty today before United States District Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr., to a fourteen count criminal information, charging the corporation with willfully and recklessly violating the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, Title 49, United States Code, Sections 5124(a), (c)-(d), based on its violations of hazardous materials regulations (HMR), and DOT Special Permit (SP) 11186. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Airgas Doral and the government agreed to recommend the imposition of a $7,000,000 fine ($500,000 per count of conviction) to be paid by Airgas Doral, and guaranteed by its corporate parent and 100% owner, Airgas, Inc. and that Airgas Doral be subject to a two year term of probation.
“The safe transport of hazardous materials is of paramount importance,” stated U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. “Working as partners, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Transportation are committed to the prosecution of individuals and corporations that willfully and recklessly violate the hazardous materials laws, regulations, and permits which are in effect to protect the nation and our community from potential harm.”
"The guilty plea entered into today by Airgas Doral, resulting from the company’s violation of hazmat laws, regulations, and a special permit demonstrates that ensuring the safety of the Nation’s transportation systems remains a high priority for both the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Department of Transportation (DOT),” said Marlies T. Gonzalez, DOT-OIG regional Special Agent-in-Charge. “Working with our Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and prosecutorial colleagues, we will continue our efforts to enforce the hazardous materials laws against those who compromise the integrity of DOT’s hazmat safety program.”
According to the court record, Airgas Doral, a Delaware corporation, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Airgas, Inc. which is a leading U.S. distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases and hard-goods, and is the successor in interest to the former Airgas South, Inc. (Airgas South), pertaining to the Miami fill plant business.
According to court documents, including the information and an agreed upon factual statement in support of the plea, between March 12, 2008 and May 14, 2008, the Miami fill plant then operated by Airgas South, made eight shipments of argon, cryogenic liquefied gas in intermodal portable tanks, or ISOs, covered by requirements of SP 11186 and the HMR, but failed to comply with HMR and SP 11186 requirements pertinent to transporting refrigerated liquefied gas, under pressure, in such containers, including: recording the applicability of SP 11186 on shipping papers; failing to provide carriers a copy of SP 11186; and failing to conduct physical inspections of ISOs, and to take and record required readings of the ISO’s pressure and ambient temperature, as well as required computations of travel time. Airgas South also failed to provide Miami fill plant hazmat employees and managers, required function specific training concerning their handling of the argon shipments in ISOs covered by SP 11186.
According to the court record, including the factual statement, the violations at the Miami fill plant were discovered when the means of containment of an ISO offered for transportation by Airgas South on May 14, 2008, failed, releasing argon gas in the hold of a vessel at Port Everglades. Three stevedores who entered the vessel’s hold were asphyxiated and died as a result of their exposure to argon gas in that confined space. Although other parties handled the ISO after it left the Miami fill plant, Airgas South was the shipper of record and offeror of the ISO for transportation, making it responsible for performing pre-transportation functions, including preparing shipping papers complying with the HMR and SP 11186 requirements, and certifying the hazmat was in proper condition for shipment. However, subsequent investigation revealed Miami fill plant hazmat employees and managers failed to perform required physical inspections of the ISOs, including a visual inspection of all emergency pressure relief devices for corrosion, distortion, or any damage or defect that could prevent normal operation, which resulted in Airgas South offering for transportation, an ISO which should not have been shipped, as it failed to meet the pre-transportation requirements of SP 11186 and the HMR necessary for legal shipment. Additionally, shipping papers accompanying the container failed to include a copy of SP 11186, as required, or to reference SP 11186, or include any notation of the tank’s pressure, ambient temperature, or computation of travel time. The investigation also revealed Airgas South hazmat employees and managers were unfamiliar with SP 11186 requirements, despite Airgas South, its corporate parent and related corporate group holding and operating under, in excess of 100 similar special permits, and having a training and compliance division intended to address training issues for all subsidiaries and members of the corporate group.
Judge Scola scheduled sentencing for May 26, 2016 at 9:00 a.m. At sentencing Airgas Doral faces a criminal fine of up to $7,000,000, or twice the gross pecuniary gain derived from the offense, or twice the gross pecuniary loss caused to any victims of the offense, whichever is greater; restitution; and up to 5 years of organizational probation.
Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of DOT-OIG, and the technical and support assistance provided by the DOT-Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose A. Bonau of the Economic and Environmental Crimes Section.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida at www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.