Friday, October 01, 1999

Maker pleads guilty in drum explosion

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A chemical manufacturer pleaded guilty to two felonies Thursday in a 1995 hazardous-waste explosion that killed a Mason man.

        J. Scott Shaffer, a vice president of Lancaster Synthesis Inc., based in Pelham, N.H., entered the plea for his firm in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

        He admitted the facts presented by FBI Agent Tracey Heinlein:

        • Lancaster knowingly shipped hazardous waste to a Winton Place recycling/disposal firm in 1994 without a federally required manifest.

        • The company lied on a cargo document that said the waste was nonhazardous.

        Clean Harbors Environmental Services on Spring Grove Avenue accepted the waste and stored the drum as if it were nonhazardous.

        In October 1995, the waste exploded and 29-year-old super visor Joel Murray died from burns and other injuries.

        The waste was sodium azide, which federal regulations define as an extremely hazardous and potentially explosive substance. It is identified as providing the explosive power to inflate automobile air bags.

        Lancaster produces organic chemicals for research. It shipped the deadly drum to the federally licensed storage/recycling firm in Winton Place after closing a South Carolina facility.

        In addition to the guilty plea negotiated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Brinkman and Marty Woelfle, from the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, Lancaster promised that its U.S. facilities would have a qualified employee responsible for health, safety, the environment and compliance with environmental laws.

        As part of the plea bargain, Ms. Brinkman and Ms. Woelfle recommended the maximum allowable five years of probation but half the maximum $500,000 fine.

        The penalty will be up to U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott when she sentences Lancaster. Clean Harbors — also known then as Spring Grove Resource Recovery — was fined $3,500 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for mishandling the waste-filled drum, OSHA area director William M. Murphy said.

        He said Clean Harbors was fined because “red flags” should have alerted employees that the drum was mislabeled and required caution.

        For instance, he explained, “horrible odors” were incompatible with the label and employees kept moving the shock-sensitive drum around to avoid the stink.

        Clean Harbors should have opened the drum and assessed its contents, Mr. Murphy said.

        Agent Heinlein's investigation continues, Mr. Murphy added.


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