Montana News

Jan 23, 2013 8:42 PM by KPAX/KAJ Media Center

Cenex fined $500K for toxic chemical fire near Malta

PHILLIPS COUNTY - Cenex Harvest States has been fined $500,000 after a 2009 fire at a fertilizer and pesticide store released toxic chemicals into the air and may have contributed to the deaths of 14 calves.

A press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office says On Nov. 21, 2009, a Milk River Cooperatives facility owned by CHS containing agriculture chemicals caught fire. The building contained seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, including 1,800 punds of substances containing the chemical 2,4-D.

The Phillips County Volunteer Fire Department Chief responded, and was concerned about the chemicals burning, the press release says.

Most of the chemicals in the building were burned and released into the air or ground, according to the fire chief.

When a CHS environmental, health and safety manager learned of the fire and informed the state's emergency agency, the fire was described as small and "of no significance," according to the release.

Another CHS safety manager "later stated that if the wind had been blowing west, towards Malta, they would have evacuated the town."

CHS has been fined $500,000 for failure to report the release of a hazardous substance, besides a $400 special assessment and $50,000 to the Phillips fire department as community service.

CHS bought about 475 head of cattle that had been downwind of the fire's smoke and paid the market value for the 14 dead calves.

The press release is below:

The United States Attorney's Office announced on Tuesday that Cenex Harvest States, Inc., (CHS Inc.) was fined $500,000 for failure to report the release of a hazardous substance.

In addition to the fine, CHS will make a $50,000 payment to the Phillips County Rural Fire Department as community service and pay a $400 special assessment.

In an Offer of Proof filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris A. McLean, the government stated it would have proved at trial the following:

The Milk River Cooperatives' (MRC) facility at Malta is owned by CHS Inc. The MRC facility's primary business consisted of retail sales of feed and seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to local farmers. During late 2009, the herbicides stored at the MRC facility included approximately 1,800 pounds of materials containing the chemical 2,4-D.

On November 21, 2009, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the MRC facility caught fire. The Phillips County Volunteer Fire Department Chief arrived on the scene at approximately 2:00 a.m. The Chief observed the MRC facility manager on sight moving equipment to safety. The MRC facility manager told the Chief that the building held a variety of different chemicals. The Chief told the MRC facility manager to place berms in the ditches to contain the flow of chemicals and to "get hold of a hazmat team."

The Chief was concerned about the liquid chemicals all over the floor of the building. The MRC facility manager watched large barrels of the chemical 2,4-D go up in flames. The MRC facility manager asked the fire department to not spray water on the fire to prevent the spreading of the chemicals. The Chief left the fire scene at approximately 4:30 a.m. and observed that most of the chemicals located inside the building had burned or released to the air and ground.

The general manager for all MRC facilities arrived on the scene at approximately 3:30 a.m. Upon his arrival, the general manager took a CHS Inc. emergency response card out of his wallet and called CHS Inc.'s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager to notify him of the fire. The Environmental, Health and Safety Manager called the State of Montana Disaster and Emergency Planning Services (MDES) to report the fire at CHS Inc.'s Malta facility.

The MT DES planner that received the call understood that it was a warehouse fire and that chemicals such as glyphosate, 2,4-D and Round-up were contained in the warehouse. The MT DES planner understood from CHS Inc.'s Environmental, Health and Safety Manager that the fire was small and of no significance. The MT DES planner was not told that chemicals were released onto the ground or that the chemicals posed any risk. The MT DES planner understood the fire was under control and contained in the facility. No one from CHS Inc. placed a call to the National Response Center or the EPA Emergency Response Center in Denver, Colorado.

The manager of CHS Inc.'s Big Sandy facility also served as the safety manager for its Malta facility. This CHS Inc. manager responded to the fire scene at approximately 7:00 a.m. on November 21. The manager provided an inventory of chemicals that had been stored at the Malta facility to the Malta Fire Department. The manager was very concerned about products containing 2,4-D being toxic and dangerous when consumed in a fire.

The manager later stated that if the wind had been blowing west, towards Malta, they would have evacuated the town. Shortly after the fire, 14 calves downwind at a ranch east of Malta died of a lung ailment. A veterinarian stated that toxic smoke from the fire could not be ruled out as a cause of death. CHS Inc. paid the owners of the calves market value for the dead calves and also purchased approximately 473 head of cattle that had been exposed to smoke from the MRC facility fire.

Cleanup of the fire's aftermath included collection of 6,750 gallons of a water/chemical mixture waste created by fire suppression efforts. Impacted soils around the facility were excavated. Approximately 130 cubic yards of 2,4-D contaminated soil was collected and held for proper disposal.

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said, "Congress has passed many laws regulating companies to be good neighbors to the environment. There is an existing regulatory framework to protect the public health of Montana citizens and Montana businesses. In fact, most of the environmental laws, like the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), came into existence 30 or 40 years ago. Under CERCLA, CHS had the duty to immediately notify the National Response Center as soon as it had knowledge of an unpermitted release of hazardous substance, specifically the chemical 2,4-D. CHS failed its duty."

Cotter continued, "The failure by any individual or corporation to properly report and handle a chemical spill will be investigated and prosecuted in the District of Montana. The U.S. Attorney's Office will continue to strive to protect Montanans' public health and safety and the environment for generations to come."

Jeffrey Martinez of the EPA's criminal enforcement program said, "Complete, accurate and honest reporting is essential in order to protect the public when harmful toxins are released from facilities. Following a fire and release of hazardous substances, the defendant failed to notify the proper authority as required by law. Today's sentence shows that this type of conduct will not be tolerated.

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