FREEPORT — Gulf Chemical & Metallurgical Corp. officials said Friday the company pleaded guilty to 11 felony violations and agreed to pay a $2.75 million fine to end a criminal investigation into environmental violations at its Freeport plant.

Gulf Chemical officials made the agreement with Travis County prosecutors after the company was accused of manipulating its water releases at the site’s catalyst recycling plant to skirt environmental regulations.

Investigators took environmental records from the site’s administration building in February, eight months after a tipster called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claiming the company was keeping two sets of books on water quality.

“This has been embarrassing for our company, and it’s not a happy time when you have to plead guilty to felony violations of the Texas Water Code, but we do believe it was handled in the best circumstances possible,” said Gulf Chemical spokeswoman Nancy Wollam.

Travis County Assistant District Attorney Patty Robertson, whose department prosecutes environmental crimes for the commission, said the agreement was good for Brazoria County residents.

“This is helping to upgrade their plant and it’s making them stop the unlawful discharges,” Robertson said. “This is a very good outcome.”

Gulf Chemical President Dave Pacella said the company will strive to rebuild its reputation with customers and the community.

“This situation has been embarrassing for our company, and we apologize to our employees, customers and the community for the concern it has caused,” Pacella said. “This does not represent the high standards we strive to meet every day.

“By agreeing to this plea, we accept responsibility as a company for what happened in the past, and more importantly it allows us to move forward to implement measures to ensure that we are never in this position again,” he said. “We look forward to earning back the trust of all of our stakeholders.”

THE AGREEMENT

Gulf Chemical agreed to plead guilty to 11 felony violations of the Texas Water Code from June 2007 to January 2008, according to court documents filed Friday in Travis County. Each violation called for a fine of $250,000.

“Gulf Chemical & Metallurgical Corp. pled guilty today to intentionally discharging pollutants,” TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery said in a statement faxed to The Facts. “These actions are not tolerated in Texas, which is reflected by the substantial settlement amount.”

Robertson said an investigation into possible criminal violations by a person involved with Gulf Chemical is pending, but he declined to give further information.

Wollam said the company paid the fine in full Friday with a cashier’s check.

Also, Gulf Chemical agreed to upgrade the Freeport site’s wastewater treatment system to meet recommendations of an engineering consultant hired by the company in September. The majority of the work has been completed or is scheduled for completion soon.

“We moved quickly to correct the problems as soon as they were discovered,” Pacella said. “We will continue to work diligently every day to ensure our operations are safe and environmentally responsible.”

Gulf Chemical also must submit a report to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office within one year confirming that the work has been completed.

“Our natural resources belong to all of us. They are part of our common heritage as Texans,” Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said in a statement sent to The Facts. “Our water supplies and wildlife habitat are already under pressure, and when they are damaged or destroyed by someone’s irresponsible behavior, we all pay the price.”

THE COMPLAINT, THE FINE

The investigation began after the tipster called the TCEQ on July 6 and said she had uncovered a spreadsheet on a company computer the month before that she believed showed the company was manipulating the flow of wastewater, according to a search warrant released Feb. 5.

The employee believed the spreadsheet showed Gulf Chemical would keep samples artificially low to meet permitted quality levels.

“On days when compliance sampling was not occurring, GC would increase its flow and exceed discharge limits,” the search warrant states. “GC was not reporting the exceedances to the TCEQ.”

Gulf Chemical is allowed to return its used water to Texas waters, but only after it has been treated for certain contaminants. Industrial companies are supposed to report violations to the commission, along with plans for how they will correct the issue to prevent further problems.

Gulf Chemical began construction in April on a sulfur dioxide abatement system which will reduce stack emission by at least 95 percent and will dramatically reduce emissions of particulate matter.

“Too often companies like Gulf Chemical have brushed off smaller fines for polluting the environment, considering them just a cost of doing business,” Lehmberg said in the statement. “That’s wrong. We’re making sure the penalties for this case fit the crime.”

More than $2 million of the fine will be deposited into Travis County’s general fund, according to Lehmberg’s statement. The remainder will be earmarked for the TCEQ.

Pacella said he believed the issue has made Gulf Chemical a stronger company.

“We are fully dedicated to the service of our customers and will continue to make improvements to our operations and processes so that we remain a trusted business partner to them,” Pacella said.

Nathaniel Lukefahr covers industry for The Facts. Contact him at 979-237-0151.

(4) entries

BrzFamMan
BrzFamMan

The arrogance of Gulf Chemical is amazing. I believe the only true way to eliminate these companies from knowingly polluting is to go after them criminally. Put Pacella in jail for 10 years and watch how the executives of these industrial companies ensure that they are not polluting.

Also can you believe that after they are polluting in Brazoria County, Travis County gets >$2,000,000.00 of the settlement? Where is the outrage from The Facts about this fact. The residents of Brazoria County get polluted, then the residents of Travis County get the money. Somebody should call John Kyl or something because this is rediculous.[sad]

onemorep

So what about the air they pollute? You can't miss the yellow/brown smoke they are emitting to the local residents of Freeport. Come on Freeport and surrounding communities speak up. It affects everybody.

Proud Dad

The smoke that they have coming out of their stack is called opacity, and if they don't have an opacity limit in their Air Permit they can pump as much of that stuff out as they want. But with my experience with the Air regs and the way they really get it coming out of the stacks on the weekends my guess is they have a limit, and again are carrying two sets of books. I WISH SOMEONE ELSE IN THE COMPANY WOULD STEP UP AND GET THESE EMISSIONS STOPPED. I have complained to the State several times and thought that when GC got raided that they would have got caught for that also. I guess not!!

EmpWife

Hmmm.....those in charge down there have KNOWN what they have been doing for YEARS. Employees have brought the issues to the attention of those in charge and have basically been ignored OR told to just "do your job and dont worry about it" ....they have also been instructed to run the process "under the cover of darkness" (I have personally heard this from Daves mouth) .Employees were also instructed to check for "outside monitoring" during their shifts. Now, if you were doing what you are SUPPOSED to, why would you be so paranoid as to monitor if someone is monitoring YOU? Those in charge KNEW full well what they were doing and are STILL doing. Someone also needs to keep on them about their so-called corrective measures and CONFIRM progress in such. Pacella initially attempted to blow smoke up the behinds of the employees and the public by denying any wrong-doing and playing dumb like he didnt know why the search took place! Can the public or employees trust anything that this man says? I for one, believe he is deserving of a lengthy jail term! I would bet my right leg he is setting up another employee to take the fall for this, when in fact HE was ultimately responsible for the decisions within the company.

Proud Dad - read a copy of the Plea Agreement...this isnt the end. There are still potential charges ahead. The reason other employees dont speak up is that they are fearful of being terminated. If you are an employee, think about those that have been terminated since July of '09.....many are those that did "speak up". And of those....how many received what could be perceived as "hush money" in the form of severance pay? Read your handbook on what severance an employee is entitled to and then investigate what those terminated actually received. Oh wait....is there an actual CURRENT employee handbook? Try to locate one!

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