A Baker truck driver on Wednesday admitted federal charges stemming from a 2012 explosion and fire that injured three workers and destroyed an oil recycling plant near Wibaux.
Appearing before U.S. District Judge Susan Watters in Billings, Kelly Steen, 51, pleaded guilty to transportation of hazardous materials without placards. A second count is to be dismissed at sentencing under the terms of a plea deal.
Federal prosecutors indicted Steen after an investigation into the Dec. 29, 2012, explosion and fire at the Custom Carbon Processing saltwater disposal and oil reclamation plant located about 10 miles southeast of Wibaux.
The fire injured three workers and burned the facility to the ground. Two tank trailers that contained natural gas condensate and were attached to Steen’s semi tractor also caught fire and burned for eight days, prosecutors said.
Two of the workers’ injuries were minor, and one was more serious, a company office manager said shortly after the fire. All three workers were treated and released.
Watters set sentencing for Aug. 20 and continued Steen’s release. He faces a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Rubich said evidence would show that Steen, an independent truck driver, was dispatched by Woody’s Trucking LLC to pick up a load of natural gas condensate from Saddle Butte Pipeline in Watford City, N.D., for delivery to Custom Carbon Processing in Montana.
Steen delivered the load to the plant, Rubich said. The normal procedure was to transfer the gas from the truck into large holding tanks on the side of the facility, he said.
However, on Dec. 29, the underground line to the plant was frozen, so Custom Carbon Processing employees directed Steen to transfer the gas directly into the plant’s main bay, Rubich said.
As Steen began pumping the gas through hoses into the facility, flammable vapors filled the building, Rubich said. An “unknown ignition source” in the building ignited the vapors, causing the explosion and fire, he said.
A federal investigation by three agencies determined that Steen was transporting the natural gas condensate, a hazardous material, without putting placards with the appropriate warnings on his truck, Rubich said.
“In fact, there were no placards on (Steen’s) truck at all on the day of the explosion, which greatly hindered responding firefighters’ ability to safely fight the fire,” prosecutors said in court records.
Federal Department of Transportation regulations also require shipping papers to identify hazardous materials by an identification number, proper shipping name, the hazard class and packing group, prosecutors said. Shipping papers Steen had prepared for the load had none of that information.
Wibaux County’s emergency and fire responders were not equipped to deal with the facility fire. Attempts to extinguish the tanker’s fire with foam were unsuccessful.
Investigating agencies included the DOT, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.