Death and chemicals … and indictments

Death and chemicals … and indictments

A federal grand jury has indicted CES Environmental and its former president, Matthew Lawrence Bowman, for conspiracy to illegally transport hazardous materials, resulting in the deaths of two employees.

The 13-count indictment describes a scheme in which hazardous materials were transported illegally with false documents and without placards, and where workers were not properly protected from exposure to hazardous gases. The exposure resulted in the deaths of two truck drivers at the facility on Dec. 18, 2008 and April 14, 2009. Both deaths are attributed to exposure to hydrogen sulfide.

The full name of the firm is Port Arthur Chemical and Environmental Services LLC (PACES), located at 2420 Gulfway Drive in Port Arthur along the intracoastal waterway. In a series titled “Death and Chemicals,” The Examiner reported on the deaths of Joey Sutter, 36, in December 2008 and Charles B. Sittig, 48, in April 2009 at the Port Arthur facility.

At the time, company officials said that both men died of natural causes. Justice of the Peace Tom Gillam III, who conducted formal inquests into both deaths, strongly disagreed. “Mr. Sutter did not die of natural causes,” said Gillam. “His cause of death was asphyxia and poisoning due to hydrogen sulfide inhalation.”Gillam later ruled that Sittig died at the Port Arthur site of severe heart disease but said exposure to hydrogen sulfide was a “contributing factor.”

In August 2009, federal and state agents, assisted by local law enforcement officers, raided the Port Arthur CES facility as well as its Houston headquarters where a third worker had been killed in a July fire. Although company officials continued to insist their workplace was safe, a unit at the Houston facility burst into flames during the raid.

Evidence collected in that raid and elsewhere precipitated the grand jury action. The defendants were charged with a conspiracy to violate the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act (HMTUSA), and two counts of failure to implement appropriate controls to protect employees from exposure to hydrogen sulfide in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act. The defendants are also charged with transportation of hazardous materials without placards and with false documents in violation of HMTUSA, violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and making false statements.

According to the indictment, Bowman, 41, of Houston, was president and owner of PACES, which was in operation from about November 2008 to November 2010, and was in the business of producing and selling caustic materials to paper mills. The production of caustic materials involved hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is classified as a poisonous gas by HMTUSA. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Hydrogen sulfide is an acute toxic substance that is the leading cause of sudden death in the workplace. Employers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement engineering and safety controls to prevent employees from exposure above harmful limits.

According to the indictment, Bowman was responsible for, among other duties, approving and directing PACES production operations, the disposal of hydrogen sulfide wastewater, employee safety precautions, and in some cases personally handled the investigation of work-related employee injuries, directed the transportation of PACES wastewater, and determined what safety equipment could be purchased or maintained.

The conspiracy and substantive counts of the indictment each carry a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, and a $500,000 maximum fine for the corporation.

This case is being investigated by EPA Criminal Investigation Division; the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – Environmental Crimes Unit; the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department – Environmental Crimes Unit; the Houston Police Department – Major Offenders, Environmental Investigations Unit; the Travis County, Texas – District Attorney’s Office; the Harris County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office – Environmental Crimes Division; the Houston Fire Department; OSHA; the U.S. Coast Guard; the Port Arthur Police Department; and the Port Arthur Fire Department.