Texas gas company must pay for several environmental projects in RI for environmental crime

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A Texas gas company was ordered Tuesday to pay for several environmental programs in Rhode Island under a criminal sentence handed down by a judge who took the unusual step of asking the community for punishment ideas.

U.S. District Judge Williams Smith was forced to resentence Southern Union Co. after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down his original penalty of $18 million.

In crafting the sentence, he adopted several of the ideas he received. Among them was establishing a fund to provide technical assistance to communities dealing with the fallout of environmental pollution and paying to sample freshwater fish for mercury contamination. He also ordered the company to serve two years of probation and undergo a comprehensive environmental audit.

Southern Union was convicted in 2008 of storing liquid mercury without a permit in containers such as glass jars and a plastic jug at a vacant and rundown building in a densely populated area of Pawtucket. Teenagers broke into the building and dumped mercury there and at a nearby apartment complex, which had to be evacuated. Many residents later were found to have unacceptably high levels of mercury in their blood and showed other symptoms of mercury exposure, such as hair loss and rashes. About 90 of them later settled a lawsuit over the spill for undisclosed terms.

The jury was never asked to determine how many days the company broke the law, but prosecutors said it was 762 days, more than two years. Smith relied in part on that number when he calculated the original sentence, finding the maximum fine was $38.1 million. He then imposed a $6 million fine and ordered the company to pay $12 million to various charities.

But the Supreme Court struck down the sentence, saying a jury should have determined the number of days the company broke the law. Smith then determined the maximum sentence he could legally impose was $500,000, a result he called unsatisfactory and unjust and one that would not deter Southern Union or others from such conduct in the future.

He then asked for suggestions on how to sentence the company in a way that would have “the broadest possible impact.” He received a wide range of ideas from groups including the state Department of Environmental Management, environmental groups, the city of Pawtucket and others.

Smith turned down prosecutors’ request that the company be forced to pay part of the penalty as a $100,000 fine, saying he wanted all $500,000 to be used to make the most direct impact on the people affected: the residents of Rhode Island.

The sentence includes: $150,000 for freshwater fish sampling, $100,000 for the technical assistance fund, $100,000 for projects to improve the collection of old mercury thermostats and to collect and recycle compact fluorescent lamps, $50,000 for a program to educate people who live in urban areas about how contaminants get into the aquatic food chain, $50,000 to pay to plant trees and other vegetation at an industrial site in Providence, $25,000 for Earth Day cleanups, and $25,000 for Pawtucket to purchase hazardous waste equipment.

Most of the programs would be administered by the Department of Environmental Management, although some of them were proposed by other groups.

Lawyers for the company and government did not comment after the sentence.