Before a gas explosion consumed an Eastern Montana waste plant in 2012, the plant’s manager acknowledged the building was so poorly wired and ventilated that “we run the risk of killing someone.”
Mark Hurst, of Custom Carbon Processing, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of violating the Clean Air Act in U.S. District Court in Billings recently. Hurst was the project manager for the Canadian-based company’s Wibaux operation.
If the court accepts his plea deal, Hurst will be on the hook for a $5,000 fine and an unspecified amount of restitution to two employees who were injured in the Dec. 29, 2012, explosion.
Prosecutors previously noted three employees were injured in the explosion but listed only two in its more recent filings in Hurst's case.
Hurst admitted charges Feb. 27. His co-defendant, company President Peter Margiotta, remains set for trial on the original charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
The Wibaux facility was built in 2012 to process waste oil. Soon after it opened, it began accepting shipments of natural gas condensate, a highly flammable substance that contains air pollutants.
The facility had safety problems even before it began accepting the gas shipments, according to the government’s offer of proof.
In a July 2012 email Hurst sent to other unnamed managers, he noted deficiencies with the electrical panels, saying, “We also run the risk of killing someone, not only our operators but also customers.”
His concerns about the facility’s ventilation continued, as documented in a November email to other managers that said "I wanted all things venting into the building to be vented out the building ..."
At the outset, the facility would fill with hydrocarbon fumes when oil reclamation operations were underway. The company installed powered fans on the roof vents, but only bought half-horsepower fans, and not the five-horsepower fans that were needed.
The company failed to pay for explosion-proof electrical wiring and used a regular door for the employee break room, which let vapors leak in from the main plant area.
But when the plant started accepting the flammable gas shipments, its safety problems got worse, according to the government’s court filings. Workers told Hurst they were worried the gas was dangerous, but the operations continued.
John Doe 1, an unnamed shift foreman, warned Hurst that he didn’t have room to accept the shipment of natural gas condensate that sparked the December explosion, but was ordered to take it anyway and find somewhere to store it. The gas was offloaded directly into the main bay because underground lines were frozen, according to the government's filings.
While pumping the gas into the receiving unit inside the facility, the building began filling with flammable vapors, and an unspecified ignition source sparked, causing the explosion. The building burned to the ground.
John Does 1 and 2 were both injured, and both had been worried about the danger of the facility’s operations, the government said. One said he talked to Hurst daily, although the court filings do not specify whether about safety protocol or other matters.
Most or all of the facility’s eight bay doors had to be kept open to account for the building’s poor ventilation, the two injured employees said, and they were exposed to a high concentration of the gases each morning when they opened the facility.
Woody’s Trucking, which transported the natural gas condensate from North Dakota across the state line to the Wibaux facility, was convicted along with its owner, Donald Wood Jr., on 13 of 14 federal charges in May 2018.
Wood is currently serving a one-year prison sentence for the charges, which include conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and transportation of hazardous materials without placards or proper shipping papers.
He was also ordered to pay $1.3 million in penalties and restitution.
Hurst is scheduled to be sentenced June 27. Charges against Custom Carbon Processing were dismissed without prejudice in July at the government's request.