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    Ashland Reaches Plea Agreement

    Oil company pleads guilty to negligence in 1997 St. Paul Park, Minn., fire.

    ST. PAUL PARK, Minn. -- Ashland Inc., operator of more than 2,300 convenience stores through its Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC subsidiary, pleaded guilty yesterday to federal misdemeanor charges, admitting it violated environmental regulations that contributed to an explosion and fire at its St. Paul Park petroleum refinery five years ago.

    The company, in a plea agreement, agreed to pay upward of $11 million in fines, restitution to five employees who were injured, and costs to upgrade equipment at the facility, now owned by Marathon Ashland Petroleum, the Star (Minn.) Tribune reported.

    One employee, who was burned in the fire, will receive $3.5 million in restitution.

    Glenn Hammer, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Ashland Inc., admitted that the company violated a section of the Clean Air Act by negligently releasing a hazardous pollutant into the air.

    On behalf of the company, Hammer also pleaded guilty to submitting false documents to inspectors. "Ashland continues to regret the tragic incident and the consequences it created for employees," he said in a statement.

    On May 16, 1997, workers were pumping hydrocarbons into the refinery's sewer system, which is required to have tightly sealed manhole covers. One of the manhole covers was propped open, allowing hazardous vapors to escape. The vapors ignited into a fireball, the report said.

    Refinery employees, also trained to fight fires, put out that fire and were cleaning the area when a second explosion and fire erupted out of the open manhole, injuring five employees.

    Under the agreement, the company will pay $3.5 million in fines to the government, $10,000 each to four additional employees injured in the fire, and $50,000 each to the St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Newport fire departments and to the company's own emergency response team.

    The company also must sponsor a workshop at a national petroleum industry conference.

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