Propane Co. Faces Hazardous Substances Environmental Complaint

On September 2, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a civil complaint in the Middle District of Florida against Ferrellgas, Inc., which does business as Blue Rhino, for violations of the general duty of care imposed by the Clean Air Act (CAA). The filing faults Blue Rhino for safety and training lapses that supposedly resulted in a massive explosion at its facility in Tavares, Fla. in 2013.

According to the complaint, Blue Rhino is a retail marketer and a provider of liquid propane via the “Blue Rhino” brand cylinder exchange program. For a fee, customers exchange empty metal cylinders for refilled cylinders at the Tavares facility, the complaint explained.

The incident at the heart of the lawsuit occurred on July 29, 2013. Four workers at the Tavares facility opened the bleeder screws of returned cylinders to save time emptying them, with the intention of then leaving for the night. Propane gas vented into the atmosphere from the opened valves. When a forklift working in the area was started, a spark ignited the ambient propane and a fire broke out. It increased in intensity and size due to “chain reaction and explosions,” launching flames “as high as 200 feet.” Five workers were severely injured and one minorly injured. The fire also caused approximately $3.5 million in property damage.

According to the EPA’s complaint, propane is “an extremely hazardous substance” within the meaning of the CAA, because propane release “can cause death, injury or property damage due to its flammability.” As the facility owner and operator, Blue Rhino is subject to statutory obligations, including the duty to maintain a safe facility, the EPA contended.

For its first CAA count, the EPA claimed that Blue Rhino failed to maintain and implement standard operating procedures to “ensure workers safely conducted operations involving extremely hazardous substances such as propane.” In addition, and prior to the July 2013 incident, Blue Rhino allegedly “did not adequately train employees on the basic nature of liquid propane gas and how if accumulated in large quantities, even in an open yard, the propane gas could explode from a spark such as from the operation of a forklift and cause a chain reaction.”

The second count charged the defendant with failing its duty to analyze worksite hazards. The complaint averred that Blue Rhino “had not adequately identified hazards in the yard which may result from the release of propane using appropriate hazard assessment techniques.” For relief, the EPA seeks the assessment of civil penalties and a cost award.

The United States is represented by the Department of Justice and the Office of the United States Attorney.