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Former President of Port Arthur chemical company pleads guilty after employee deaths

The former president of Port Arthur Chemical and Environmental Services, LLC (PACES) has pleaded guilty in federal court to occupational safety crimes which resulted in the death of an employee.

Matthew Lawrence Bowman, 41, of Houston, pleaded guilty to violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and making a false statement.

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Bowman admitted to not properly protecting PACES employees from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas resulting in the death of truck driver Joey Sutter on Dec. 18, 2008. In addition, Bowman admitted to directing employees to falsify transportation documents to conceal that the wastewater was coming from PACES after a disposal facility put a moratorium on all shipments from PACES after it received loads containing hydrogen sulfide.

The guilty plea was entered Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn.

"In this day and age, it seems inconceivable that workers would be exposed to the level of danger that was routine at PACES," said U.S. Attorney John M. Bales.

"Mr. Bowman's actions as the leader of the company were more than just cavalier, they were criminal and he is being held to account. We continue to grieve for the needless loss of life and the pain and suffering of Mr. Sutter's family and friends. This investigation and prosecution is the result of an excellent combined effort of the identified agencies and I am grateful for their hard work," said Bales.

"Bowman's actions showed a preference for profit above the safety of his employees, putting them and the public in life threatening situations by not properly identifying the dangerous materials PACES was handling," said Assistant Attorney General Moreno.

According to information presented in court, Bowman was president and owner of PACES, located in Port Arthur, and CES Environmental Services (CES) located in Houston. PACES was in operation from November 2008 to November 2010, and was in the business of producing and selling caustic materials to paper mills. The production of caustic materials involved hydrogen sulfide.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, hydrogen sulfide is an acute toxic substance that is the leading cause of sudden death in the workplace. Employers are required by OSHA to implement engineering and safety controls to prevent employees from exposure above harmful limits of hydrogen sulfide.

Bowman was responsible for approving and directing PACES production operations, the disposal of hydrogen sulfide wastewater, and ensuring implementation of employee safety precautions. In some cases, Bowman personally handled the investigation of work-related employee injuries, directed the transportation of PACES wastewater, and determined what safety equipment could be purchased or maintained.

In the cases at issue, the U.S. Attorney's Office says hazardous materials were transported illegally with false documents and without the required placards. Most importantly, the workers were not properly protected from exposure to hazardous gases. The exposure resulted in the deaths of two employees, Joey Sutter and Charles Sittig, who were truck drivers, at the PACES facility on Dec. 18, 2008 and Apr. 14, 2009.

Placarding is critical to ensure the safety of first responders in the event of an accident or other highway incident. Bowman and PACES were indicted by a federal grand jury on July 18, 2012.

Bowman faces up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 at sentencing. A sentencing date has not been set. Charges remain pending against PACES.

The corporation faces a fine of up to $500,000 per count.

 

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