Gulf Coast Asphalt Company reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors earlier this month over criminal charges related to a small oil spill that occurred at the facility in September 2011.
The incident occurred in the middle of the night on Sept. 1, 2011, and caused 143 barrels or 6,006 gallons of “fuel oil” to leak into drainage ditches and the Mobile River. In the plea agreement, GCAC acknowledged “negligence” as a contributing factor to the accident.
The incident caused nearly five miles of the Mobile River to shut down to commercial and recreational boat traffic while the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies worked to contain and remove the oil.
“The discharge was caused by an overfill of oil during a tank-to-tank transfer when employees pumped oil into the receiving tank under pressure,” the court file reads. “Because employees miscalculated the tank volume of the receiving tank prior to the transfer and engaged in the transfer of oil without employing proper procedures, the tank ruptured and oil was released into the secondary containment area and ultimately into the Mobile River.”
Based on court documents submitted July 10, GCAC agreed to plead guilty to charges under the Oil Pollution Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and to pay $1.7 million in criminal fines and other costs.
The plea has been agreed to by both parties, but a judge will have to finalize it before it and formally sentence GCAC before it becomes official. According to the available court documents, the settlement breaks down into four parts:
$292,000 restitution payment to the United States Coast Guard.
$75,000 restitution payment to the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources.
$1,000,000 criminal fee that includes a $667,000 criminal fine due at the time of sentencing.
$333,000 organization community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be utilized exclusively in the Southern District of Alabama.
In addition to the financial penalties, GCAC agreed to a year of “organizational probation,” to start immediately after sentencing. Agreeing to the probation would expressly forbid the company from violating the Clean Water Act or any other federal, state or local law during that time.
Gulf Coast Asphalt ceased operating along the Mobile River not long after the spill, but has since relocated to Houston, Texas. However, it stipulates in the terms of the plea agreement that relocation nor a change in business name will affect the court-ordered the probation.
Tim Johnson, an attorney with the international firm Locke Lord, was listed as the counsel for the GCAC. Calls to Johnson for comment on the settlement were not immediately returned.
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said she remembers well the immediate aftermath of the 2011 spill, which affected industry along the river and businesses including the Carnival cruise ship operating on the riverfront at the time.
“When you break the rules, you should pay a fine,” Callaway said. “It has to be a deterrent from ever doing it again. They’re not here anymore. So, will this be a deterrent for them? I don’t know.”
Still, Callaway said she felt the amount of the potential settlement was sufficient and said she was glad steps were taken to make sure the $333,000 going to NFWF would be spent in the area affected by the spill.
The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) received money from GCAC in the immediate aftermath of the spill through a supplemental environmental project. Those funds were made available by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which allowed GCAC to directly fund local environmental efforts as opposed to paying state fines.
Altogether, MBNEP received $150,000 from GCAC as a result of the spill. That money was used to development a watershed management plan for Three Mile Creek and to develop the “Create a Clean Water Future” campaign to promote stormwater management and education.
“One good thing that’s come from the watershed management plan is the other projects that are already sprouting up because of that work,” said Rick Frederick, a community relations manager for MBNEP. “Some of these other projects and other good things are happening because of that, which is better than if they would have just paid a fine straight to ADEM.”