A wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. will pay $6.1 million in fines and plead guilty to a criminal charge in response to a 15,000-gallon diesel fuel spill at an Everett oil terminal - a mess that federal authorities said was caused, in part, by the company's failure to replace a $2 metal coupling.
Prosecutors said yesterday that they had charged ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. with a criminal violation of the federal Clean Water Act in the January 2006 spill, which coated the Island End River and Mystic River with a blue-green sheen.
Under a plea agreement filed with the criminal charge in US District Court in Boston, the company will not only pay the fine, but will also fund a court-appointed monitor to oversee the Everett terminal for three years, and follow a rigorous environmental compliance plan. The agreement awaits court approval.
The spill occurred over a period of about 12 hours beginning Jan. 9, 2006, after the oil tanker M/V Nara docked at ExxonMobil's terminal to unload petroleum products, authorities said. A badly worn 10-inch seal valve on one of the berths failed to close completely and leaked low-sulfur diesel fuel into another pipeline containing low-sulfur kerosene. That caused pressure to build up in the second pipeline until it burst a 3/4-inch metal coupling 610 feet way.
US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said a contractor testing the valve for ExxonMobil in September 2005 had warned the company that the 10-inch seal was leaking - but the company ignored the warning. Sullivan also said the metal coupling was more than 30 years old, unpainted, and badly corroded, and would have cost about $2 to replace.
"This was an accident waiting to happen," he said at news conference, where he showed reporters two pieces of the broken coupling.
The spill was discovered by the Coast Guard, which received numerous calls about an oily sheen on the rivers and traced it to the source.
ExxonMobil said in a statement yesterday that it "takes its environmental responsibility very seriously" and will try to prevent a similar spill from occuring.
"We very much regret that in January of 2006, we had a release of a petroleum product into the Island End River in the Boston area which resulted in a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act," the company said.
Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said the fuel got onto boats and docks at the Admiral's Hill Marina in Chelsea and took three to four weeks to clean up. But he said there was no obvious damage to wildlife in the largely industrial area.
As part of the plea agreement, ExxonMobil is to pay $538,652 in fines and cleanup costs and make a community service payment of more than $5.6 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Fund, which will pay to restore wetlands in Massachusetts.
Erin Deveney, chief of staff to Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria Jr., said in a statement that he was pleased the agreement "recognized the seriousness and the significance of the incident" and was confident that ExxonMobil "will be attentive to environmental and safety precautions in the future."
The spill occurred at the confluence of the Island End and Mystic rivers, which flow into Boston Harbor. For decades, the harbor had a notorious reputation because of pollution from industrial waste, but in recent years it has gotten cleaner.
Prosecutors and other federal officials said at the news conference that ExxonMobil was criminally negligent in the spill, which dumped 12,700 gallons of low-sulfur diesel and 2,500 gallons of kerosene into the water.
The authorities released a photograph that showed an outdoor metal walkway near one of the berths where the coupling burst. The walkway lay beneath several inches of greenish fuel during the spill, yet no one from ExxonMobil alerted authorities as the fuel filled a containment pan and poured into the river.
"The pan overflowed into the river for hours and hours and didn't stop until the [M/V Nara] stopped pumping," said Assistant US Attorney Jonathan F. Mitchell, a prosecutor in the case. ExxonMobil employees "should have been doing their regular rounds and didn't, because if they had done their regular rounds, they couldn't have missed it because they would have had to splash through the stuff."
Exxon Mobil Corp. and its corporate predecessors have owned the marine distribution terminal since 1929. Oil tankers deliver petroleum products to the terminal, and the fuel is then distributed throughout New England, authorities said. The terminal features 29 oil storage tanks.
Stacey H. Mitchell, chief of the environmental crimes section of the US Justice Department in Washington, which worked on the case with Sullivan's office, said ExxonMobil ignored basic maintenance by failing to replace the leaky valve seal and the old coupling.