Plant Explosion

This photo provided by Wibaux County Disaster and Emergency Services, shows an Eastern Montana oil recycling facility destroyed by an explosion and a fire, that was still burning on Dec. 31, 2012, two days after it began outside Wibaux. Three workers were injured in the explosion.

The project manager for an Eastern Montana oil recycling plant that burned to the ground and injured workers was given probation Thursday for a federal misdemeanor.

Mark Hurst, who had warned his boss for months that the facility was unsafely wired and poorly ventilated, failed to report the problems to an independent authority, like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

While that failure landed Hurst in court, his role was more limited than Custom Carbon Processing President Peter Margiotta’s, the judge noted.

“You were caught between a rock and a hard place,” said U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters.

The business near Wibaux recycled waste oil into a grade high enough to be resold. Not long after opening, the facility began accepting natural gas condensate to help process heavier or thicker rounds of waste oil.

On Dec. 29, 2012, flammable vapors filled the facility as a shipment of gas condensate was unloaded and hit a heater that had been left on, sparking an explosion that consumed the building.

Margiotta was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act in late September. He’s currently awaiting sentencing.

Hurst testified against his former boss during the trial.

Watters noted Hurst’s efforts to warn his boss of safety concerns, which included an email telling Margiotta the facility was so unsafe that “we run the risk of killing someone.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Dake also acknowledged Hurst’s circumstances, saying that you “can only do so much when you’re an employee in that situation.”

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Hurst, a Canadian citizen, was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation on one charge of negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. A separate restitution hearing will take place at a later date.

When it was his turn to speak, Hurst said his involvement at the Eastern Montana facility taught him “the biggest lesson I’ve ever had in my life.”

“I’m just really glad that we’re not talking about someone’s death here today,” he said.

Hurst said he regretted not reporting the safety violations, and told the judge if he ever works in a similar job in the future, “You can be assured that I won’t hesitate to do the right thing.”

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