A 2014 explosion at the Williams Opal natural gas processing plant forced the evacuation of the town, and caused a spike in the price of natural gas.
Credit Rachel Anderson
No Fines, No Follow-Up After Massive Explosion At Wyoming Natural Gas Plant
By Stephanie Joyce • 7 hours ago
In 2014, a massive explosion tore through the Williams natural gas processing plant in Opal. It forced the evacuation of the southwestern Wyoming town and caused a spike in the price of natural gas.
Wyoming’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an investigation in the aftermath and found a number of safety violations. But the agency never collected the corresponding fines and never released a final report about the investigation.
The lack of follow-up came to light because media requests for the report after a worker died at the same plant in September.
John Cox became the director of the Department of Workforce Services a year after the 2014 explosion. Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce spoke with Cox about how this happened.
Stephanie May Joyce: It seems like a pretty big oversight to forget to send that fine. What are you doing to correct the failures of your fining process?
John Cox: First of all, in complete agreement that it is a serious oversight. I don't think I could overstate our surprise when we discovered pursuant to the fatal tragedy that happened this month, our surprise that the process was not completed with Williams in 2014. A serious issue. From my perspective, as the new director of the agency, once I learned of that last week, I immediately called a meeting with John Ysebaert, who is the administrator, together with the supervisors from OSHA. I had a bunch of questions for them and then directed that they do a complete case file review of all open cases in OSHA. To me, the question is—is this an isolated incident or do we have a problem we need to solve in terms of how our process works? That's to be discovered but that's what we will be looking into.
Joyce: Is it typical that after such a major incident there is no follow-up?
Cox: Again, it's hard for me to comment on that because a lot of this is new to me, in terms of what is typical and what is not. If it is typical, it will get corrected. The fact is that what needs to be typical, and I assume it is, because we have really committed professionals in the OSHA operation. My assumption is this is atypical. I'm going to find out if this is typical or if it is an aberration, but what does need to be typical is that there is quick, sequential, disciplined follow-up that ensures that abatement procedures or abatement agreements have been followed, and associated with that, that fines have been levied and collected.
Joyce: Just to make sure I'm understanding, not only that the fines are levied and collected but that there should be actual follow-up, you know, inspections and investigation, following a major incident.
Cox: That’s a good question. Clearly there is the need to verify that the abatement has taken place in any case, whether it’s an inspection where no harmful event has occurred or one where you have an ultimate tragedy, which occurred earlier this month.
Joyce: This did come up in the wake of this month’s death at the Williams plant. Are you concerned about a pattern of safety lapses at this facility?
Cox: At this point, Stephanie, it too early for me to say whether there’s a continued pattern of safety lapses at the plant. That’s something we should be able to establish with the investigation we are conducting now. But preliminarily, it appears to us that there isn’t a relationship or resemblance between what occurred this month and what occurred in 2014.
Joyce: I do understand that OSHA is pretty narrowly focused on ‘was a particular standard violated?’ which I think sometimes obscures the larger question of ‘is there a culture of safety?’ or ‘is there enough attention paid to safety at a particular facility or by a particular company?’ Is that something you are able to address in an investigation, and if so, how do you go about doing that?
Cox: I think the simple answer is yes. And I'll tell you from what I know. First of all, in an investigation like this, not only are the operating procedures and the process of the company under investigation, but also the safety and the condition of their equipment, their operating equipment, and what remedial measures might need to be taken by a company. In addition to that though, as those assessments are made during the investigation, which looks into not only their procedures and policies but whether or not they are following them, that certainly can give us a picture of whether or not the company is serious about what they are putting on paper.
Beyond that, moving downstream from that, so hypothetically, if you have a company being inspected, we identify some gaps in whether or not they're actually walking out the procedures that they've got and living with those procedures, we can we can bring a variety of consultative services to the table to help that company and ensure that they follow their own policies. And there’s consequences when they don't.
Joyce: Thank you very much for taking the time.
Cox: Thank you.
Opal fire penalties went unpaid due to state clerical error
Heather Richards 307-266-0592, Heather.Richards@trib.com
Updated Sep 29, 2016
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 $46,000 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.
Previously, Antilla would receive a phone call from a regulator at the state alerting her to an incoming fine, but that hasn’t taken place in years, she said.
The final steps in closing the Opal fire case are taking place, Ysebaert said. After the penalty amounts are sent to Williams, and regulators have checked that the company has fixed the problems that led to the fines, the company has a period of weeks to either pay the fines or appeal them.
The case will remain open until penalties are paid, Ysebaert said.
“Inspectors are verifying that all the abatement was done and so forth,” Ysebaert said. “But we have thousands of inspections, and that one just did not get closed.”