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AUSTIN -- Tanknology-NDE International Inc., the nation's largest underground storage tank inspection company, agreed to pay $2.29 million in fines and restitution after pleading guilty to producing false reports at federal facilities in nine states. At the same time, the company reassured its pool of private and public clients that it has undertaken corrective steps since the charges first arose some three years ago
"We accept responsibility for the consequences of our employees' past actions," Tanknology President Chief Executive Allen Porter said in a statement. "Although no government site is known to have incurred any environmental damage as a result of our employees' actions, the issues identified by the government were potentially very serious and have been addressed, we believe, constructively and thoroughly in our agreement.
"Based on the thoroughness of the government investigation, we believe all our customers can be confident both that no unknown liability remains in Tanknology's past work, and that future work will be performed according to the highest quality standards achievable in the industry."
Under a plea agreement filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Tanknology pleaded guilty to 10 felony counts of presenting false claims and making false statements to federal agencies from 1997 to 1999, according to a joint statement from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Justice Department.
The tests involved postal, military and other facilities, including Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, the Fort Worth Joint Reserve Naval Air Station and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The storage tanks that were supposed to be tested contained petroleum products, including gasoline and jet fuel, the Associated Press reported.
The tests are required under federal law and check for leaks that can cause health and environmental risks, such as contamination of soil and ground water, and can potentially lead to explosions. "False testing at underground storage tanks presents grave risks and is unacceptable," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said in a statement.
According to the plea agreement, Tanknology regional managers set schedules for testers that made it difficult for them to conduct all the required tests, and the company instituted a bonus system that rewarded testers for the number of tests they performed. Tanknology knew of complaints that testers were inadequately trained and were performing invalid tests but failed to fix the situation, the agreement says.
"This settlement represents a new threshold for Tanknology," Porter said. "The investigation and subsequent settlement negotiations have taken up valuable company time and resources that could have been directed at our core business ? performing UST environmental services. Our primary goal at this time is to put this experience behind us and focus all our efforts on serving our customers."
U.S. District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth must decide whether to accept the plea agreement, which calls for a $1 million criminal fine and restitution payments of $1.29 million to the federal government. The company also would be place on probation for five years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Pierce told the Austin, (Texas) American-Statesman that the company no longer tests for the federal government but does work for commercial clients, such as gasoline stations.