Illinois firm settles for $2.5 million in 2017 fatal pipeline construction explosion case

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An Illinois company has agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle safety charges from an explosion that killed three welders and injured seven at a Louisiana containerboard mill in 2017, as well as other alleged safety violations, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

The blast at the Packaging Corporation of America plant in DeRidder “launched a 100,000-gallon (378,500 liter) storage tank into the air and over a six-story building before it landed on mill equipment approximately 400 feet (120 meters) away,” according to a news release.

Packaging Corporation of America, based in Lake Forest, Illinois, did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent through its website.

Both the proposed settlement and charges against the company were filed Thursday in federal court in Lake Charles, Louisiana, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of DeRidder, which is the parish seat of Beauregard Parish.

“This case demonstrates the tragic impacts to human life and the environment that can result from failures to follow appropriate chemical accident prevention and preparation requirements,” said Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

As is common in agreements reached before charges are filed, Packaging Corporation of America does not admit any liability. A 45-day public comment period, which has not yet been scheduled, must be held before a judge can decide whether to approve the proposed agreement.

EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) allege nine Clean Air Act safety violations, some involving the industrial accident and others found during the investigation that followed. The plant employs about 530 workers and makes 874,000 tons (792,900 metric tons) of containerboard a year, according to the documents.

The explosion on Feb. 8, 2017, occurred as contract welders were repairing cracks on two pipelines near a 100,000-gallon tank for harmful vapors from pulping, according to the complaint. It said the “foul condensate tank” should have been emptied before welders started work — and had been before earlier welding — but this time held liquid and highly flammable gases.

Vapors ignited, touching off the explosion that killed 33-year-old William Rolls Jr.; 42-year-old Sedrick Stallworth; and 41-year-old Jody Gooch.

“In addition to the three fatalities it caused, the Explosion released an estimated 2,453 pounds of methanol ... and a yet-to-be-determined quantity of turpentine,” according to the complaint.

Other allegations include failing for three years to train workers to maintain the plant’s six chlorine sensors and failing for about seven months to keep adequate records of inspections and test on those sensors. Chlorine has not been used there since October 2018, according to the settlement.

And from at least Sept. 18, 2015, through Oct. 15, 2018, the company failed to keep inspection records for emergency gear including its rescue truck and fire equipment, according to the complaint.

Starfield said the proposed settlement holds the company accountable “and sends a clear message to corporations across the country on the importance of implementing appropriate chemical safety measures.”

The charges were brought under provisions added to the Clean Air Act after a gas leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, EPA said. The leak in 1984 and its lingering effects had killed more than 15,000 people and affected at least 500,000 as of 2014, Indian authorities have said.

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