A Utah-based company that manufactures commercial explosives pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to failing to report a large-scale ammonia discharge from its plant just outside St. Helens.
Dyno Nobel Inc., through its senior vice president, admitted to releasing more than six tons of anhydrous ammonia vapor into the air from its St. Helens-area facility over a three-day period starting on July 30, 2015.
The company also acknowledged it did not immediately notify the National Response Center, which is required under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, known as “CERCLA.”
Company personnel knew the excessive ammonia emissions were occurring but made no effort to alert authorities until more than a week after the first discharge, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Bounds and special assistant U.S. Attorney Karla Gebel Perrin.
Anhydrous ammonia is a pungent gas with suffocating fumes. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The emissions triggered numerous complaints from neighboring residents in Columbia County, who reported foul odors, eye irritation and difficulty breathing, according to prosecutors.
The failure to alert the national center right away impeded emergency response, said Jeanne Proctor, special agent in charge of the criminal investigation division of the Environment al Protect Agency in Seattle.
“EPA will not tolerate this blatant disregard for public safety,” Proctor said in a statement.
Dyno Nobel’s senior vice president Jeffrey Droubay entered the plea Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon on behalf of the company and its manufacturing plant at 63149 Columbia River Highway, on Deer Island in Columbia County.
Under the plea, the company is expected to face a $250,000 fine and two years of probation that will require new measures to detect future hazardous emissions.
The felony charges carries a maximum fine of $500,000 and up to five years of probation.
Droubay said the company has worked with federal environmental regulators the last two years, and invested tens of millions of dollars in new technology and upgrades to control emissions and improve health and safety operations at the plant. The plant hasn’t had a reportable release of ammonia since October 2015, he said.
“The health and safety of our employees and communities in which we operate is our first priority,” Droubay said. “For this reason, we will continue to invest and take steps to assure that releases like the one we experienced in 2015 are much less likely to recur.”
Sentencing is set for 11 a.m. on June 4.
— Maxine Bernstein