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Iowa company pleads guilty to releasing contaminated water into Duenweg sewer; must pay fine and issue public apology

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NEWS RELEASE FROM THE OFFICE OF U.S. ATTORNEY WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI TAMMY DICKINSON

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that a Des Moines, Iowa, company pleaded guilty in federal court today to releasing thousands of gallons of gasoline-contaminated water into the city sewer system of Duenweg, Mo.

Seneca Companies, Inc., pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush to the negligent introduction of a pollutant or hazardous substance into a publicly owned sewer system without any permit.

Seneca is a petroleum and hazardous materials handling company headquartered in Des Moines. Seneca agreed to repair a gasoline line at Casey’s General Store, 8084 E., 7th Street, in Duenweg in December 2010. This gasoline line failure had allowed gasoline to accumulate into a containment sump on Casey’s property. Seneca employees were responsible for safely repairing Casey’s gasoline line failure and safely disposing of any hazardous material in conformity with state and federal regulations.

On Dec. 16, 2010 Seneca employees pumped gasoline-contaminated water out of Casey's containment sump and into the sewer system, negligently releasing a hazardous substance or pollutant (water tainted with gasoline), which was an illegal discharge.

Approximately 30 to 40 minutes later Casey’s employees detected a strong odor of gasoline and immediately notified the Duenweg Fire Department and the Seneca crew. Casey’s employees and Seneca’s crew immediately began pouring buckets of water into the sinks and floor drains to combat the fumes.

Employees of the Rosebrough General Store, located downstream from Casey’s, also detected strong gasoline odors inside their store and immediately vacated the store and notified the Duenweg Fire Department. The Duenweg Fire Department responded and immediately requested assistance from Joplin, Mo., fire and hazmat personnel, who also responded.

Joplin Fire Department personnel conducted atmospheric testing from various down flow sewer manholes from Casey’s and confirmed gasoline vapors above the lower explosive limit in the sewer under the Duenweg elementary school, causing the 150 students to be immediately evacuated from the school. The Duenweg and Joplin fire departments pumped large quantities of water into the sewer system to lower or dilute the gasoline vapors.

While it is impossible to know the exact amount of gasoline and water that were discharged into the public sewer, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources estimate is that between 7,500 and 10,000 gallons were released into the city system.

Today’s plea agreement notes that Seneca had been involved in this type of repair work at Casey’s in the past. In December 2009, Seneca applied to the city of Joplin for a permit to release treated water at the Casey’s location in Duenweg. Seneca’s application stated that, “due to the nature of gasoline sales at the site, the groundwater will be treated onsite with a portable air stripper system before discharging to the City’s sanitary sewer system.” Seneca received the permit to perform the work and completed it properly, using precisely the procedures they should have used on Dec. 16, 2010.

Under the terms of today’s plea agreement, Seneca must pay a fine of at least $75,000, up to $200,000, as well as restitution during a term of five years of probation. Seneca must conduct annual training for all employees engaged in the repair of underground gasoline storage tanks on the proper and lawful disposal and removal of pollutants or hazardous materials from underground gasoline storage tanks. The company must also publish a public apology consisting of an advertisement in the Joplin Globe for seven consecutive days. Public dissemination of Seneca’s negligence, says the plea agreement, will provide a deterrent effect for other potential violators of the Clean Water Act.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Abram McGull II. It was investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Criminal Investigation Division, the Duenweg, Mo., Fire Department, the Joplin, Mo., Fire Department and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

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