A former manager of a San Angelo meat packing plant plead guilty today to misleading federal regulators, announced U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Erin Nealy Cox.
Rean Brooks, 51, plead guilty to misprision of a felony, or concealing knowledge of the actual commission of a felony, before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Parker.
In plea papers, Mr. Brooks, former manager at Texas Packing Company, admitted that he concealed knowledge from federal regulators about the toxic chemical levels at the meat processing facility.
“Federal laws require employers to undertake steps that limit exposure to toxic substances to employees and the public,” said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox. “Criminals that deceive regulators and skirt the law, potentially putting lives at risk, will be held accountable for their actions.”
According to court documents, Texas Packing Company was operating its refrigeration unit, which contained anhydrous ammonia, in violation of OSHA regulations posing danger to the safety of the plant’s employees.
Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical is used to recirculate fluid in refrigeration systems at facilities such as meat processing plants. Exposure to the chemical in high concentrations is toxic and may result in temporary or permanent blindness; severe burns; corrosive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach; asphyxiation; and death.
By law, OSHA requires that processing plants that operate with levels of anhydrous ammonia exceeding 10,000 pounds must implement and operate under a Process Safety Management (PSM) program to prevent the catastrophic release of dangerous chemicals and minimize damage in the event accidental release or spills occur.
In 2018, Texas Packing was operating its facility with 16,500 pounds of anhydrous ammonia or approximately 6,000 pounds over the level at which a PSM program is required. An individual reported the hazardous chemical issues to OSHA. The following day, an OSHA inspector traveled to the plant and met with Mr. Brooks and others and provided notice of the complaint.
Texas Packing was informed by a plant safety manager that the implementation of a PSM program would cost approximately $20,000. To avoid the potential costs, an individual at Texas Packing falsified a document with the intent to make OSHA believe the plant was in compliance with regulations. Mr. Brooks then gave that document to an OSHA inspector, also with intent to deceive the inspector.
OSHA subsequently assessed a $615,640 fine against Texas Packing for the plant’s non-compliance related to the anhydrous ammonia levels, lack of PSM program, and for other violations. The fine was one of the top ten largest assessed by OSHA in 2018.
Mr. Brooks faces up to three years in federal prison for his crimes and a fine up to $250,000. A sentencing date has not been set.
This investigation was conducted by United States Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Howey is prosecuting this case.