DUENWEG, Mo. —
A guilty plea on behalf of an Iowa company was entered Friday in federal court at Springfield to the release of thousands of gallons of gasoline-contaminated water in 2010 into Duenweg’s sewer system.
The plea for Seneca Companies, based in Des Moines, was entered before U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush to the negligent introduction of a pollutant or hazardous substance into a publicly owned sewer system without a permit.
The company will be required to pay a fine of $75,000 that could go as high as $200,000, and issue a public apology.
The company’s public relations spokeswoman in Des Moines was out of the office on Friday. Another company employee said she was not qualified to comment on the matter. Representatives of the company in Springfield could not be reached for comment.
Vapors from the gasoline-contaminated water were so strong that they could have exploded near Duenweg Elementary School. The school’s 150 students were evacuated after the vapors were detected.
C.J. Huff, superintendent of schools, said he did not know at the time of the school’s evacuation that an explosion might be possible.
Said Huff: “I had no idea. There was a smell of gasoline fumes and we evacuated the students to East Middle School.’’
The Joplin Fire Department was called to the scene after assistance was requested from the Duenweg Fire Department. Personnel from Joplin conducted atmospheric testing from various down-flow sewer manholes from Casey’s and confirmed gasoline vapors above the lower explosive limit in the sewer near Duenweg Elementary.
Allyn Reding, fire chief at Duenweg, said, “You could smell it. It was in the sewer line that runs to the treatment plant.’’
Reding said only the school was evacuated because responders “pulled manholes to keep it out of residential areas. We neutralized it with water and soap, and told the treatment plant it was coming.’’
Reding said the sewer main is directly behind the school.
According to a statement released Friday by Tammy Dickinson, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Seneca, a petroleum and hazardous materials handling company, had agreed to repair a gasoline line in December 2010 at Casey’s General Store, 8084 E. Seventh St., in Duenweg.
The gasoline line failure allowed gasoline to accumulate in a containment sump on Casey’s property.
On Dec. 16, 2010, two Seneca employees, Robert Morrison, 31, of Cowgill, and Greg Gill, 50, of Overland Park, Kan., pumped the gasoline-contaminated water out of Casey’s containment sump and into the sewer system “negligently releasing a hazardous substance or pollutant (water tainted with gasoline), which was an illegal discharge,” according to Dickinson’s statement.
Morrison, a technician, and Gill, a supervisor, were indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2013 at Springfield. The defendants were charged with one count of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by unlawfully disposing of a hazardous substance and one count of violating the Clean Water Act by introducing a hazardous substance into the sewer system.
Don Ledford, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City, said they still face those charges and that their status has not changed. He said the plea agreement reached on Friday was with the company.
Approximately 30 to 40 minutes after the contaminated water was placed in the sewer system, Casey’s employees detected a strong odor of gasoline and immediately notified the Duenweg Fire Department and the Seneca crew. Casey’s employees and Seneca’s crew immediately began pouring buckets of water into the sinks and floor drains to combat the fumes, according to the statement.
Employees of the Rosebrough General Store, located west and downstream from Casey’s, also detected strong gasoline odors inside their store and immediately vacated the store and notified the Duenweg Fire Department. The Duenweg Fire Department responded and immediately requested assistance from Joplin fire and hazmat personnel, who also responded.
The Duenweg and Joplin fire departments pumped large quantities of water into the sewer system to dilute the gasoline.
While it is impossible to know the exact amount discharged, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources estimate is that between 7,500 and 10,000 gallons were released into the city system.
The plea agreement notes that Seneca had been involved in this type of repair work at Casey’s in the past. In December 2009, Seneca applied to the city of Joplin for a permit to release treated water at the Casey’s location in Duenweg. Seneca’s application stated that, “due to the nature of gasoline sales at the site, the groundwater will be treated on-site with a portable air stripper system before discharging to the city’s sanitary sewer system.”
Seneca received the permit to perform the work and completed it properly, using precisely the procedures they should have used on Dec. 16, 2010, according to authorities.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Seneca must pay a fine of at least $75,000, and up to $200,000, as well as restitution during a term of five years of probation. Seneca also must conduct annual training for all employees engaged in the repair of underground gasoline storage tanks on the proper and lawful disposal and removal of pollutants or hazardous materials from underground gasoline storage tanks.
Seneca Companies must also publish a public apology consisting of an advertisement in The Joplin Globe for seven consecutive days. Public dissemination of Seneca’s negligence, according to the agreement, will provide a deterrent effect for other potential violators of the Clean Water Act.