Judge levies $850,000 penalty against company over hazardous chemical storage



(The Center Square) – A federal judge has levied an $850,000 penalty against an ag-chemical company in central Washington state for alleged violations of environmental laws.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice imposed the fine earlier this month against Multistar Industries Inc. of Othello for safety and reporting violations dating back nearly six years. Rice presided over a non-jury trial in July based on claims brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which filed a lawsuit in September 2021.

Multistar is a family owned business that provides chemical storage and handling services, primarily anhydrous ammonia, around the Pacific Northwest. The company has also provided storage and transport of a chemical called trimethylamine, which the EPA describes as a hazardous, highly flammable compound used in the manufacture of electronics, explosives, pharmaceuticals, paper and as a gasoline additive. The compound is corrosive to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, the agency said.

In December 2017, Multistar began receiving rail shipments of trimethylamine from its manufacturer, Eastman Chemical Co. of Pace, Florida. The chemical was stored in detached, unmotorized rail cars at the Othello facility until needed by another manufacturer, Moses Lake Industries, which provides high-purity chemicals used in the making of semiconductors and electronic devices.

When directed, Multistar would transport batches of trimethylamine by tanker truck about 30 miles to the north to Moses Lake Industries, which lacks rail access at its facility.

EPA alleged that Multistar stored large quantities of the chemical for long periods of time without properly following provisions of the federal Clean Air Act Risk Management Program and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. In all, seven violations were cited including failure to perform a “process hazard analysis” or provide written operating and handling procedures, initial employee training, emergency planning, and community notification.

The judge did note that Multistar conducted a “worst-case scenario release” in May 2019 as part of a hazard assessment required under federal law. The scenario estimated that more than 900 people within a half-mile radius of the facility could be exposed in such a case.

While none of the trimethylamine knowingly escaped from Multistar’s facility, Rice called the chemical “highly flammable and deadly” and said its prolonged onsite storage put “workers’ lives at risk as well as the lives of the people in the community.”

The penalty imposed by Rice was less than the $1.02 million fine sought by the EPA.

In a ruling issued Aug. 1, Rice said the $850,000 penalty – levied at nearly $125 a day over 6,859 days – was sufficient to achieve “retribution and deterrence purposes.” The judge also imposed an injunction against the company “to assure compliance with the statutes and regulations for the next five years.”

Multistar’s attorney, Michael Gillett of Seattle, did not return an emailed request from The Center Square for comment. The Tri-City Herald reported that a company official said relevant environmental laws had been followed, local first-responders were aware of the chemical’s presence, the penalty amount was unjustified, and an appeal was planned.

In an Thursday news release, Ed Kowalski, director of EPA’s Region 10 Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said Multistar only took steps to come into compliance with clean air risk and reporting requirements after the agency began an investigation in 2019. Since that year, EPA said, the company had stored an average of 696,380 pounds of trimethylamine at its site.

“This ruling was a huge win for preventing chemical accidents,” said Kowalski.

The agency also said it has had other compliance issues at the Multistar facility, reaching settlements with the company in 2005, 2016, 2019, and 2021.

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