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Company sentenced for Clean Air Act violation in Anaconda

Posted at 2:53 PM, Dec 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-13 16:55:17-05

BUTTE — U.S. Minerals, Inc., a corporation that admitted to exposing employees at its former Anaconda plant to elevated levels of arsenic, was sentenced Friday to a maximum probationary term, fined and ordered to enact a medical monitoring plan for workers at the Montana plant and a nationwide environmental health and safety plan at its five other plants, U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said.

U.S. Minerals pleaded guilty in August to one count of negligent endangerment, a misdemeanor, under the Clean Air Act as charged in a criminal information.

U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen sentenced U.S. Minerals as recommended in a plea agreement to a maximum of five years of probation and to pay a $393,200 fine. The criminal fine is in addition to civil penalties totaling $106,800 imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in a related civil proceeding, bringing the total amount to be paid by U.S. Minerals to $500,000.

Probationary conditions require U.S. Minerals to implement a medical monitoring program for employees who were exposed to elevated levels of arsenic during their work at the Anaconda plant and a nationwide environmental health and safety plan at all five of its plants throughout the United States. The Anaconda plant ceased operations in June. The company operates plants in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas and Louisiana.

“Despite repeated warnings and enforcement actions from regulators, U.S. Minerals continued to poison its workers and put profits before the well-being of its employees. U.S. Minerals’ history of misconduct showed a lack of care for employee safety and an utter disregard for regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. This case ends U.S. Minerals’ criminal conduct in Montana and will hold it accountable at its other plants,” U.S. Attorney Johnson said.

“U.S. Minerals exposed its employees to toxic levels of arsenic, a hazardous air pollutant known to pose significant health risks,” said Special Agent in Charge Lance Ehrig of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in Montana. “Today’s sentencing demonstrates that EPA and its partners will hold corporations accountable when they ignore environmental regulations and jeopardize the health of workers.”

“The continued dedication of the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Justice, working in collaboration with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, achieved justice and improved health and safety working conditions for the employees of U.S. Minerals nationwide. By working together, we leveraged a multi-agency front and held U.S. Minerals accountable for violating multiple federal laws and overexposing employees to inorganic arsenic,” said Jennifer Rous, Regional Administrator for OSHA’s Denver Region.

The government alleged in court documents that U.S. Minerals manufactured silicate abrasive, a substance sold to industrial and governmental customers. Raw materials used in the production process were obtained from a waste copper slag pile, located within the Anaconda Superfund site. Processing the slag generates dust, which releases inorganic arsenic into the air.

The government further alleged that from July 2015 until February 2019, U.S. Minerals negligently released inorganic arsenic, a hazardous air pollutant, into the air and exposed employees. Exposure to arsenic is known to cause lung and skin diseases, including an increased risk of skin cancer, and may also cause cardiovascular effects and other cancers.

The government further alleged that in 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA each inspected the site and found numerous violations of health and safety standards that resulted in $106,800 in OSHA penalties.

In 2018, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services learned of health-related issues affecting U.S. Minerals employees, visited the site and informed the company that its employees were exposed to “apparent inhalation hazards” from dust. A second inspection found the violations were unresolved. Montana shut down U.S. Minerals in February 2019. When the state allowed operations to resume in March 2019, employees continued to test high for arsenic and lead.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan G. Weldon and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric E. Nelson prosecuted the criminal case, which was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, OSHA, NIOSH, and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor litigated the OSHA matter.