A federal judge Thursday fined Ashland Oil Inc. a record $2.25 million for a 1988 oil spill that fouled two rivers in three states and threatened to disrupt drinking water supplies for more than 1 million people.
Justice Department officials said it was the biggest penalty ever imposed against a company for a fuel spill.
“It was something more than simple negligence that the company was guilty of,” U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond said.
A dime-sized flaw in the World War II-era steel of a tank at Ashland’s Floreffe Terminal caused the vessel to collapse on Jan. 2, 1988, and unleash its contents of 3.8 million gallons of diesel oil, authorities said.
More than 700,000 gallons escaped a dike and entered the Monongahela River 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, in one of the nation’s worst inland oil spills. The river is a source of drinking water for suburban Pittsburgh, and is a tributary of the Ohio River that is also a source of drinking water.
The tank burst as it was being filled after having been dismantled outside Cleveland and reassembled beside the Monongahela. Ashland admitted violating industry standards in reconstructing the tank.
Ashland spokesman Roger Schrum called the fine excessive but said the company had not decided whether to appeal.
The company had pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts under the Clean Water and Refuse acts. Each count carried a minimum fine of $200,000.
Ashland has paid about $18 million in cleanup costs and civil claims from residents and businesses affected by the spill.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Ashland more than $50,000 for safety violations, and the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $145,000 for alleged deficiencies in its spill prevention plan.
About 23,000 suburban Pittsburgh residents endured a week without tap water while the river carried the pollution past their water intakes.