OSHA levies fines against TPC, alleges willful violations

OSHA levies fines against TPC, alleges willful violations

TPC Group faces $514,692 in fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and is accused of three willful violations — the most severe and rare category used by the agency — after OSHA concluded its investigation into the Nov. 27 plant explosion in Port Neches.

OSHA announced its conclusions Wednesday, giving some of the first official glimpses of potential failures at the plant since a vapor cloud explosion under a butadiene processing tower ignited flames that burned for weeks at the site and injured three people.

“OSHA cited TPC for three willful violations for failing to develop and implement procedures for emergency shutdown, and inspect and test process vessel and piping components,” representatives from the agency wrote in a statement.

Of the willful violations, OSHA concluded that TPC Group failed to provide updated instructions on how to shut down affected equipment, didn’t fix deficient equipment that could have caused the incident or alerted workers to a problem, and failed to use proper procedures on a pipeline design known to cause issues when using butadiene.

The design, known as a dead leg, is constantly in contact with the chemical while it is being processed but hardly ever allowed to have products flow through normally in a way that might prevent buildups. The manual for butadiene from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which OSHA cited several times, advises that dead legs should be avoided, as they can eventually cause ruptures.
Each of these violations resulted in the maximum fine the agency is allowed to levy, which is $134,937 per violation.

TPC Group has 15 days to dispute OSHA’s findings, which a representative for the company said it intends to do.

“TPC is reviewing the citations and intends to appeal them,” spokesperson Sara Cronin wrote in an email. “We strongly disagree with the characterization of some of the alleged violations as ‘willful.’ We anticipate future engagement with OSHA regarding these issues, and it would be inappropriate to comment further while our discussions are ongoing.”

TPC also faces 10 violations categorized as “serious” that range from not having documentation for training or procedures on the affected equipment to not sounding an alarm for evacuation.

The citations allege TPC Group didn’t have a proper plan for clearing five key pieces of equipment of polymer crystals known to cause ruptures in systems containing butadiene.

The ACC guidance manual calls for constant maintenance and even treating pipes with corrosion resistant materials, as rust on a pipe could introduce enough oxygen to cause crystals to form that might eventually cause the pipe to build up pressure and burst. The blockages are often called butadiene popcorn polymers and are known hazards for processing plants working with the chemical.

The company was also marked for not checking deficient equipment, specifically an analyzer that was supposed to monitor the butadiene in one of the towers.

Where the fines rank

OSHA categorizes fines over $40,000 as a “high penalty” case, and they are generally associated with “willful” violations.

Only 21 cases out of the 3,960 currently being tracked in OSHA’s enforcement case database resulted in initial fines higher than the ones levied against TPC. Cases in the database start in 2015.

The highest fine in the time period currently accessible in the database was $2.8 million to Sunfield Inc. in Hebron, Ohio. Since then, all of the company’s fines have been reduced.

The auto parts manufacturer initially faced $3.42 million in fines after being cited for 57 violations, including 46 egregious willful violations, following an investigation into an incident that left two employees severely injured.

Outside recent history, OSHA’s fines for explosions at Texas chemical plants have varied.

The agency levied $13 million in fines against BP in 2005 for the refinery explosion in Texas City that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others. Almost 10 years later in 2013, it fined the West Fertilizer Co. $118,000 for an explosion at its facility that killed 15 and injured between 160 and 200 people. The plant’s last inspection following the incident was in 1985.

Despite the death and injury toll in the West case, it resulted in a lower penalty than the Port Neches explosion, but lawyers familiar with OSHA’s investigations say the fines have more to do with what failures the agency is able to find.

Brent Coon, principal partner in Brent Coon and Associates, said when comparing West Fertilizer and TPC, it comes down to how many more cases of negligence or incompetence on the part of the company investigators discover.

“This is a pretty hefty fine, all things considered,” he said. “It’s not a lot of money, particularly for the petrochemical industry, but a willful violation is a very strong accusation.”

Coon said it is common for companies to try to dispute willful violations, not just to reduce fines, but also because of the weight they can carry in lawsuits and future investigations.

If those willful violations do stick to TPC Group, it’s likely they will be added to the arsenal lawyers representing Port Neches residents are building against the company.

Chip Ferguson, principal partner of Ferguson Law Firm, said the number of violations, their severity and the fact that TPC Group wasn’t even following suggestions from the chemical industry’s leading trade association says a lot about how clear the case was for OSHA.

“If you can’t follow the guidelines written by industry, you can’t meet any safety guidelines,” he said. “And the fact that you can’t meet the guidelines speaks volumes about the way you regard safety in general.”

Brent Coon and Associates and The Ferguson Law Firm are both representing plaintiffs against TPC Group.

Where TPC is now

All proceedings in the cases against TPC Group have been halted since January after the company’s lawyers filed a motion that made its way up to the state Supreme Court, asking the court to select a venue for the case.

At least one of the initial cases against the company was filed in Harris County, while the rest were filed in Jefferson County. The company’s representatives said that split in the filings would add unreasonable complications for their client.

A judge has still not been named to the case, but Coon said it will still take several weeks to start proceedings even after one is named.

Meanwhile, Cronin said all the high purity butadiene has been moved out of the Port Neches site as the company reaches the 75% mark for transporting all process materials. She said the company plans to finish the process by mid-summer.

She also said TPC Group is evaluating the site’s utilities, equipment and pipeline structure connected to its dock to determine if and how soon it can be used to get products to customers.

The company previously stated after laying off most processing staff that it planned to use the site for storage and transport until it decided whether to rebuild.

You can find more information regarding the TPC Explosion here.

You can find the full story here.

Jacob Dick with the Beaumont Enterprise

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