Opal fire penalties went unpaid due to state clerical error

Opal fire penalties went unpaid due to state clerical error

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Williams Pipeline

The stack on one of the compressor stations at the Opal natural gas pipeline hub is viewed through a collection of pipes in 2011.

A company that operates a major natural gas hub in southwest Wyoming has yet to pay thousands of dollars in fines imposed for safety violations after a 2014 fire because state regulators failed to send the final bill.

Regulators are investigating why the bill was never sent, but they've determined the company was not at fault, said John Ysebaert, the Department of Workforce Services’ standards and compliance administrator.

“It is clerical and on our end, on my end," Ysebaert said Wednesday. “[The company] has not paid any of the fines, but to be fair they have not been given notice of ‘This is what you owe for all those citations.’ ”

Wyoming regulators do not expect an appeal from Williams Field Services Company, which operates at the Opal plant, because the company already agreed to the final fine amounts in 2014, Ysebaert said.

“I don’t anticipate any issues with them paying the fine,” he added.

The company did not comment on its intention to pay the full amount but is aware of the oversight, said Sara Delgado, spokeswoman for Williams.

“The penalties have not yet been finalized, but we are committed to working with OSHA to reach closure on the issue,” she said in an email.

The case was opened on April 25, 2014, after an explosion ignited a fire that burned for five days and led to a temporary evacuation of the small town of Opal. An ensuing investigation led to 14 penalties, totaling $46,0000, against the Williams Field Services Company for violations such as failing to provide safety guardrails and improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Williams representatives met with Wyoming regulators and asked that two of the fines be reduced.

"OSHA and Williams Field Services Company reached an informal agreement regarding the 2014 incident on November 25, 2014," said Hayley McKee, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, in an email. "During the discussion, hazard abatement was discussed, and the final penalty amounts were agreed upon. Wyoming OSHA made a mistake, and it’s taking full responsibility in not following through with its responsibility to send the final paperwork to Williams Field Services Company."

McKee said Thursday that she could not verify the reduced penalty amount until the case has closed.

The company has been back in the spotlight after the Sept. 14 death of Michael Smuin, 36, who was killed while doing routine maintenance at the plant.

In investigating his death, the state regulators became aware of the open 2014 case. According to a federal evaluation that took place in 2014 and 2015, the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration was under strain from high turnover when the Opal fire and subsequent investigation took place.

The Opal fire case appears to have fallen through the cracks during a period of disorder at the state regulation division.

Wyoming’s OSHA department went through a period of management changes that disrupted the consistency of its work, according to a report prepared by federal OSHA regulators evaluating the state between October 2014 and September 2015.

The report found a number of issues such as the lack of proper documentation and inconsistencies with the division’s established rules. The report also concluded that issues uncovered in the federal evaluation were likely the result of high turnover within the division during 2014 and 2015.

In 2015, there were eight staffing changes within the compliance division and five new workers were hired. The deputy administrator, as well as the managers for compliance and operations were new to their positions, the report states.

The issue of the unpaid fines is further complicated by the way Wyoming collects safety violation penalties, which the federal report determined as “ineffective.”

Fines are levied by the state regulators, but companies send the money directly to the county where the infraction took place. The county passes that amount along to the school district.

The Lincoln County Treasurer’s Office was not aware that there were fines due after the Opal fire, said Joey Antilla, the deputy treasurer who receives the safety penalties.

Generally, safety penalties show up in the mail unexpected, she said.

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