Gulf Coast Asphalt Company (GCAC) has reached a plea agreement related to violations of the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) and Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) arising from the 2011 fuel-oil spill into the Mobile River. Criminal penalties and the restitution the company agreed to pay will total $1.367 million. The incident that occurred on Sept. 1, 2011, was caused when GCAC employees miscalculated available space and overfilled a receiving tank during a pressurized tank-to-tank transfer. The receiving tank ruptured and an estimated 143 barrels or 6,006 gallons of fuel oil was released into a secondary containment area around the tank and ultimately into the Mobile River through a series of drainage canals.
Nearly five miles of the lower Mobile River were closed to ship and vessel traffic for 18 hours by the United States Coast Guard. Two laughing gulls, one black-crown night heron and at least one Alabama redbelly turtle died as a result of being oiled. As part of the plea agreement reached in U.S. District Court, Gulf Coast Asphalt Company agreed to pay $1 million in criminal penalties, including $667,000 in a criminal fee and $333,000 in the form of an organizational community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The community service payment is earmarked to fund projects for the preservation and restoration of waterways and marine wildlife in and around the Southern District of Alabama.
The company, which no longer operates in Mobile and is now based solely in Houston, also agreed to pay $292,000 in restitution to the United States Coast Guard and $75,000 to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. The case was investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Criminal Investigation Division and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Alabama. Andy Castro, acting special agent in charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Alabama, stated:
When operators fail to pay attention to required safety procedures and equipment, they not only harm natural resources and communities, they break the law. Given the nature of the violations, it is appropriate that the defendant will pay one-third of a million dollars in community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Companies that damage the environment either through negligence or to save money can expect to face prosecution by EPA and its partner agencies.
Luis Santiago, Special Agent in Charge in the USFWS’s Southeast Region, added these comments:
This spill is yet another example of how human error has adversely affected migratory bird populations. South Alabama has one of the most diverse ecological systems in the Southeast, and migratory birds are a key part of this ecosystem. In recent years, migratory bird populations in coastal Alabama have been severely affected by oil spills. The service will continue to be vigilant in the prosecution of corporations and individuals responsible for harming migratory birds.
In an earlier agreement with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, GCAC agreed to fund several local restoration projects administered by the Mobile Bay National Estuary program in lieu of facing state fines.
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