Crime & Courts

Firms fined in fatal gas leak

The state workplace safety agency has levied $23,625 in fines against Tanner Industries, the Swansea ammonia storage company involved in July's gas leak that killed a passer-by.

The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined Werner Transportation Services, the trucking company involved in the leak, $5,125 for four separate violations.

On the morning of July 15, an ammonia hose ruptured at the Swansea storage plant, releasing 10,600 pounds of the toxic gas. Workers were using the hose to transfer gas from a truck to storage tanks, OSHA said.

Within minutes, an enormous cloud of poisonous mist billowed across nearby U.S. 321, turning trees black, blotting out the sun and suffocating Jacqueline Patrice Ginyard of Wagener. She was driving to work at the time.

Tanner Industries, whose facility is about 25 miles south of Columbia, was cited for seven "serious" violations - including failure to have safety shutoff valves in place that could have lessened the leak's severity. Its employees responding to the leak also weren't properly trained in emergency responses, they failed to wear proper protection gear, and there was no emergency warning system, the citations said.

Werner was cited for four "serious" violations. The citation said it failed to use the proper ammonia hose and failed to educate its employees as to how to respond to a gas leak emergency.

Both companies have 20 days to decide whether to appeal OSHA's fines to a state administrative law court.

Tanner, headquartered in Pennsylvania, declined to say whether it would appeal. It said in a statement, "We continue to actively work and fully cooperate with all appropriate authorities."

Werner declined comment. It is headquartered in Gainesville, Ga.

Both companies could have faced higher maximum total fines - Tanner, $49,000, and Werner, $28,000 - said OSHA spokesman Jim Knight.

But maximum fines were not assessed because up until now, each company had a good safety record, Knight said.

OSHA also takes into account the size of a company - meaning the smaller the company, the smaller the fine, Knight said.

Tanner has 10 workers at its Swansea plant, and Werner has 35, according to state OSHA records.

"Our job is to focus on worker safety, so our citations related to matters affecting workers," said Knight.

Another state agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, is conducting a separate investigation into safety matters affecting the public - not just workers.

A DHEC spokesman said Wednesday the agency is finalizing its report on the incident. If DHEC finds violations, it has the power to assess fines.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating. It does not assess fines but issues reports on accidents' causes.

Ginyard, 38, drove her car into the toxic fog, where it stalled, officials said. She got out of the car and tried to flee on foot but died quickly. Her body was found next to her car.

A few breaths of ammonia can scorch lungs and kill. Even a mild exposure can cause lasting respiratory problems.

Nearby residents have reported some breathing problems in the wake of the incident.

The leak sent seven people to area hospitals and prompted the evacuation of numerous nearby homes.