In January 1988, a 4-million gallon oil storage tank owned by Ashland Oil Company, Inc., split apart and collapsed at an Ashland oil storage facility located in Floreffe, Pennsylvania, near the Monongahela River. The tank split while being filled to capacity for the first time after it had been dismantled and moved from an Ohio location and reassembled at the Floreffe facility. The split released diesel oil over the tank's containment dikes, across a parking lot on an adjacent property, and into an uncapped storm drain that emptied directly into the river. Within minutes the oil slick moved miles down river, washing over two dam locks and dispersing throughout the width and depth of the river. The oil was carried by the Monongahela River into the Ohio River, temporarily contaminating drinking water sources for an estimated 1 million people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, contaminating river ecosystems, killing thousands of wildlife, damaging private property, and adversely affecting businesses in the area.
Round-the-clock clean-up efforts were undertaken by Ashland and its contractors, under the supervision of governmental coordinators located at the terminal in Floreffe. After local authorities executed the initial on-scene response during the night, EPA took control of the cleanup operations. The Incident-Specific Regional Response Team (RRT) was formally activated two days after the incident. The RRT consisted of many environment and health-related agencies from both the federal level as well as the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Contractors employed by Ashland performed the actual cleanup duties. The contractors used booms, vacuum trucks, and other equipment to retrieve the spilled oil, recovering about 20 percent of the oil that flowed into the river. EPA, in cooperation with other agencies, monitored the cleanup process and river conditions. Personnel set up a river monitoring system to track the spill, as well as a sampling and analysis process to protect water supplies. The Agency also performed follow-up activities such as compliance inspections and a spill prevention control and countermeasures plan inspection.
The instantaneous causes of the collapse of a recently reconstructed four million gallon Ashland Oil, Inc., diesel fuel tank were a flaw located near the top edge of a steel plate in the first level, ambient temperatures cold enough that the steel was brittle and static stress from filling the tank to its capacity with product. The failure by Ashland to find the flaw and establish relevant material properties are the two most serious excursions from sound practice and code compliance by the company. Ashland, its employees, and some contractors displayed a pervasive pattern of negligence and ignorance in selecting, assigning, constructing, supervising, and inspecting the reconstruction project. Reconstruction of the tank failed to conform to industry standards or the terms of the contract for the project.
A more rapid establishment of a central command post would have enhanced response coordination. In addition, the delay of RRT activation until 2 days after the incident may have decreased opportunities for valuable assistance to the responding agencies. Communication problems and lack of available containment and monitoring equipment also hindered response efforts. Evaluators of the response recommended that inventories of locally available equipment be prepared to assist emergency responders in quickly locating needed equipment. It was also recommended that to protect public water sources in future emergencies, water suppliers should plan for the availability of contingency water supplies and equipment.
Ashland Oil, Inc.’s response to the incident was adequate but slow. This was the first major oil pollution accident in the company’s 64 year history. The company’s response indicated that it had governmental guidelines to respond to an incident of this nature, but none of its own standard operating procedures for crisis response. This crisis highlights the company’s lack of internal conduct and safety operating procedures for checks and balances of its industries. Finally, this incident shows the lack of policies and involvement by government agencies. These agencies should have taken active roles through continual inspections and verifications of the plants operations.
More than 511,000 gallons of diesel fuel from the spill, one of the largest inland incidents ever to have occurred, remain unrecovered and are presumed in the rivers. The known acute effects of the introduction of the diesel fuel into the environment include the death of at least 11,000 fish and 2,000 birds, and the contamination of dozens of miles of shoreline. Studies conducted after the crisis do not account for the emotional anguish of citizens, for personal inconveniences, unknown health risks, or for the economic losses on commercial activities.
Without argument Ashland Oil, Inc. is liable for injuries caused from the Floreffe spill to the environment and the community. Aside from the legal, the ethical liabilities remain as long as cause and effect relationships exist between the spill, environment, and the community.
The company has a sketchy past in relation to its ethical conduct. In 1975, it had received its first public reprimand, when the Security and Exchange Commission fined AOI for making $717,000 in illegal political contributions. From 1979-1981, senior executives became divided over a series of questionable payments to Middle Eastern middlemen, some of whom were foreign government officials. This violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, barring U.S. firms from bribing foreign officials. The former CEO was known as a wheeler and dealer with a loose deal making style that strained corporate resources.
A corporate structure in which its management’s conduct is unethical will mirror its ethical structure accordingly. The issues against Ashland concerning the spill are example to this. The company did not have a permit to construct the tank. The tank was constructed of old steal, and was tested through a shortcut method. These were all bad decisions that ring of cost cutting shortcuts and laziness. Although at this level, the management had little control over the actions of its employees, it is the trend of unethical conduct that creates a link between the two.
Whatever long-term ramifications resulting from the spill surface in time AOI is responsible and liable for them. The company needs to continuously take an active role in the community and conduct studies to unveil all the effects of the spill. It also needs to maintain open lines of communication with the community keeping them informed and plan ahead for any issues that may arise. Finally, the company needs to renew its commitment to the company’s core ethical values and business practices and instill them in its management and employees.
The two press releases serve their purpose conveying to the public an apology, responsibility for the action, commitment to repair, and acknowledgement to the hardship placed upon those affected. Press release A forgoes the attorney-client privilege and brings right to the forefront the issues and facts concerning the spill. Press release B does not do this and remains general. Neither press releases are bad each with it merits and negative repercussions, but press release publicly admits wrongdoing opening the issues for further scrutiny with potential legal and criminal repercussions. At this point, the CEO was not prepared to unleash the skeletons resulting from press release A. Press release B is the proper release to use. I would use press release B verbatim, until I got a control of the situation and understood all the issues. I would also have those involved with the clean up with me to field questions as subject matter experts.