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St. Helens chemical manufacturer pleads guilty for failing to notify federal authorities about ammonia release in 2015

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Dyno-Nobel Inc., a chemical manufacturing plant in St. Helens.UPDATED 3/1/18: A urea manufacturing plant in St. Helens pleaded guilty Friday, Feb. 23, to felony charges for releasing large-scale volumes of ammonia in 2015 and failing to properly report it.

Dyno Nobel Inc., a chemical manufacturing plant located off Highway 30 in St. Helens, pleaded guilty to a Class E felony for violating the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act in July and August 2015 when the company discharged 6 tons of anhydrous ammonia vapor and did not notify the National Responses Center for nearly a week afterward.

Dyno Nobel must pay a $250,000 criminal fine and will be on a two-year probationary period when the company will be required to implement remedial measures, according to the plea deal.

Class E felonies carry a maximum $500,000 fine and up to five years of probation. Sentencing is scheduled for later this year.

"Many of the nation's environmental laws exist specifically to minimize the dangers essential industries pose to surrounding communities and this criminal conviction will serve as an important reminder that the EPA and the United States Attorney's Office will work together to ensure that violations of those laws do not go unpunished," Billy Williams, a U.S. attorney for the district of Oregon, stated in a news release from the Oregon Department of Justice.

In 2015, employees at the facility attempted to restart the urea plant over a three-day period starting on July 30, 2015, which subsequently caused a series of massive discharges of the vapor, the plea agreement indicates. Release of the vapors was not reported until Aug. 7, although federal law requires reports to be made immediately. Columbia City residents reported foul odors, eye irritation and difficulty breathing, the plea adds.

"Not only did this defendant release over six tons of anhydrous ammonia, impacting the neighboring community, they impeded response actions by failing to report the release," said Jeanne Proctor, EPA's special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division in Seattle. "EPA will not tolerate this blatant disregard for public safety."

Urea is commonly used as a fertilizer and feed supplement.

Shannon Weinel, who works at the Deer Island Store not far from the plant, says she's been in the area for more than a decade.

Weinel said she was "not aware of any issues" around the time of the 2015 spill, and hasn't experienced any notable impacts since then.

A prepared Dyno Nobel statement Friday, following announcement of the guilty plea, states the company has invested "tens of millions of dollars" in new technology, investments and upgrades to its Deer Island plant to improve the facility's ability to control emissions and improve health and safety operations.

"For the past two-and-a-half years, Dyno Nobel has worked cooperatively with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the release that occurred in 2015," state Jeffrey Droubay, senior vice president of Dyno Nobel's legal and business affairs. "Independent of its work with EPA, Dyno Nobel has implemented extensive upgrades to the facility to prevent such a release from recurring."

Droubay also specified that although this emission was self-reported, "as a company we recognize we must comply strictly with the timing of the reporting requirements related to releases of substances like ammonia."

Dyno Nobel also holds air and water quality permits with the Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the facility for hazardous waste.

While DEQ has no record of air quality violations from Dyno-Nobel's Deer Island plant, it notes two water quality violations — one in 2012 for violating a water quality-based effluent limit and another in 2008 for failing to collect all required water quality monitoring data.

A DEQ spokesperson said the EPA handles chemical releases like Dyno Nobel's 2015 discharge. The federal EPA requires companies like Dyno-Nobel to keep a written risk management plan on file with the agency to prevent accidental chemical releases and provide "prompt emergency response" to any chemical release, a DEQ spokesperson noted.

The Deer Island plant is part of the DEQ's cleanup program, Laura Gleim, a public affairs specialist with DEQ, noted Friday.

"There's groundwater contamination from historical releases of pollutants on the site," Gleim stated. "The facility has been operating a groundwater containment system since the 1990s to limit the ability of groundwater to migrate into other areas. DEQ is working with the company to reassess continued operation of the containment system."

Dyno Nobel's Deer Island plant is currently in a scheduled maintenance shut down until March 7.

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