Kenai oil company facing criminal charges for allegedly exposing workers to toxic chemicals

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Editors Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from a Baker Hughes spokesperson.

Oil field service company Baker Hughes, two of its related companies and an employee are facing 10 criminal charges for allegedly exposing workers to toxic chemicals at its Kenai location.

In an email to KTUU on Tuesday evening, a spokesperson for Baker Hughes vehemently denied the claims.

“Baker Hughes is committed to safety, and operates its oil field services facility in Kenai in compliance with the law. We vigorously deny the claims made against us, and will exercise our right to present evidence that the allegations are without merit," the statement said.

Court documents outline what prosecutors say the company did wrong. In May 2014, the documents say, four contracted workers were exposed to a hazardous gas release while building a new chemical transfer facility to replace an aging one owned by Baker Petrolite Corporation. The construction site was about 40 feet away from the original facility.

The documents state that a field superintendent with the contracting company, UIC Construction, LLC, spoke with an agent of Baker Petrolite Corp. (BPC) about chemicals emitting from the old chemical transfer facility through an exhaust pipe, into the open windows of the new facility. The BPC agent, John Clyde Willis, who is charged in the case, allegedly claimed the chemicals were not harmful, despite the concerns of the employees.

The field superintendent requested that Willis inform him when the chemicals were being transferred and to provide Material Safety Data Sheets on the hazards of those chemicals, which Willis initially refused, citing trade secrets.

After several UIC employees reported being exposed multiple times to hazardous air emissions, the field superintendent requested the exhaust pipe be altered to direct the hazardous chemicals away from the work site, the documents say.

Investigators note a specific incident in May of 2014 where BPC employees were cleaning a tote that contained RE31151CRW, a corrosion inhibitor chemical, that allegedly seeped into the construction site where the UIC employees were working. The court documents state that the BPC employee who conducted the transfer of the chemical was wearing personal protective equipment, and had access to the material safety data sheets, and received training regarding the hazards - none of which was provided to UIC employees.

The four UIC employees who reported exposure to the hazardous gas release complained of headaches, sore throats, respiratory distress and burning eyes, according to the documents. They were taken to a medical clinic for evaluation.

The field superintendent reached out to Willis, who confirmed the transfer took place and provided him with the material safety data sheets. When the field superintendent asked what the chemical was, Willis allegedly replied the chemical was, "not real good for you." The field superintendent then directed all the UIC employees to leave the job site and said he would contact them when it was safe to return.

When the field superintendent confronted Willis again, noting his employees were ill, the BPC agent allegedly told him "it was nothing," and that his employees use the chemical all the time.

RE31151CRW is considered hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). According to OSHA, inhalation of the chemical causes dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea and may lead to unconsciousness. It is also reported to cause central nervous system depression and can be seriously irritating to the respiratory system. The chemical also contains material that can cause damage to several organs such as kidneys, lungs, skin, and eyes, according to OSHA.

Since the reported exposure in May 2014, investigators write that the four UIC employees have suffered neurological disorders including memory loss, dizziness, headaches, hair loss, hand tremors and balance issues.

Charges against Baker Hughes, Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations Inc., Baker Petrolite Corporation, and Willis include assault in the third and fourth degree against each of the four injured men, and air pollution.

In response to the charges, the Baker Hughes spokesperson said they are confident that they can prove the allegations are without merit.

"We have confidence in the judicial system and that the full facts will be presented in court,” the spokesperson said.

An arraignment is set for July 2 at 1:30 at the Kenai Courthouse.

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