SOUTH SIOUX CITY | The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Big Ox Energy, a South Sioux City renewable energy plant, with a half-dozen serious violations totaling more than $50,000 in fines.
The citations follow a six-month investigation into an incident of worker exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas that occurred 1 1/2 months after the plant started its operations last year in the Roth Industrial Park.
Two more investigations, opened after subsequent worker incidents related to hydrogen sulfide gas and chemical exposure, remain open and -- barring an extension -- will conclude within the next two months.
The recently issued violations cover issues connected to a lack of protection, education and safety practices for employees, which at times left employees vulnerable to hazardous gases inside the facility.
According to citation documents provided to The Journal, the six violations recently issued to Big Ox Energy include the following:
-- Failure to ensure eye and face protection from hazards like pressurized liquid wastewater. An employee around Dec. 4 suffered lacerations, cheek eye socket fractures and chipped teeth after being struck by pressurized wastewater and a flying hose nozzle while wearing only safety glasses.
-- Failing to retain confined space entry permits. Canceled entry permits were not available upon OSHA's request, according to the documents.
-- Not developing and implementing energy control and lockout-tagout procedures for certain equipment, including a gas energy mixing system, centrifuge, raw-feed and digester pumps. OSHA says employees were exposed to electrical hazards, flowing wastewater and chemical and mechanical hazards while performing equipment maintenance.
-- Failing to ensure each authorized employee affixed his or her own lock or tag to certain devices prior to working on the equipment.
-- Not maintaining records measuring the amount of hazardous chemicals employees were exposed to.
-- Not ensuring that all employees exposed to high levels of air contaminants, including hydrogen sulfide, were properly trained and understood the health risks.
OSHA began probing the plant, which went online in late summer of 2016, on Oct. 19 after an employee of Clean Water Technology, a contractor at the facility, was hospitalized due to hydrogen sulfide exposure.
That company, which was also under investigation in relation to the incident, has received two serious citations from OSHA regarding respiratory protection and hazardous energy control, totaling nearly $10,000 in penalties.
Big Ox Energy spokesman Kevin Bradley said in a statement that many of the citations deal with problems that occurred several months ago during the plant's startup. He said some of them resulted from the activities of outside contractors working on the facility.
"We responded immediately after being made aware of the issues, and we also brought in top experts to verify the facility was operating properly," Bradley said in the statement. "We worked closely with OSHA and these experts to address concerns and demonstrate that our facility continues to operate safely."
OSHA opened two new investigations into Big Ox Energy on Dec. 16 and Jan. 9 following other instances of worker exposure and hospitalization due to chemicals and gases.
On Dec. 14, a maintenance worker was treated and released for hydrogen sulfide exposure. On Jan. 8, two workers were exposed to unidentified chemicals, and one was hospitalized with burns.
OSHA spokesman Scott Allen said Big Ox Energy has requested an informal conference to discuss the recently issued violations as soon as next week. Most OSHA cases are settled at an informal conference, at which time citations could possibly be reduced in severity and penalties may be lowered.
Bradley said in the statement that the OSHA report "deserves further review" and that Big Ox Energy plans to discuss the concerns with the agency.
“We are committed to an open, fact-based dialogue with the agency," he said. "We will review the proposal in detail and then meet and talk with agency representatives about how to proceed."
If Big Ox Energy desires, following the informal conference it could appeal the violations through the independent Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission.
Big Ox Energy's more than $30 million plant uses an anaerobic digestion process to extract organic nutrients from animal, grain and other waste to create methane. The clean-burning fuel is then sold into the natural gas pipeline.
Since it went online Sept. 2, the plant has been a lightning rod in the community of just over 13,000 for its possible role in sewer odor issues that displaced as many as two dozen families at their height last fall.
South Sioux City administrator Lance Hedquist said he was not immediately concerned by the violations.
"That's an issue between Big Ox and OSHA," he said.
The company currently owns two other locations near Riceville, Iowa, and Denmark, Wisconsin. Its Riceville facility was cited with five violations in late 2016 following a six-month investigation triggered by a complaint that workers were being exposed to chemicals, live electrical parts and fall hazards.
OSHA cited the facility with five violations, four of them serious. Those citations resulted in a $1,775 total penalty following an informal settlement, and all but one of the violations was reduced from its "serious" designation. Big Ox Energy has said it has remedied the situation in the months since.