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Tyson to Pay $500,000 Fine in Hydrogen Sulfide Fatality

The U.S. Justice Department said Tyson Foods Inc. pleaded guilty today in a U.S. district court in Arkansas and agreed to pay the maximum $500,000 fine for willfully violating worker safety regulations that led to a worker's death from hydrogen sulfide gas in its River Valley Animal Foods plant in Texarkana, Ark., on Oct. 10, 2003.

On Monday, Tyson Foods announced that its CEO and president, Dick Bond, is leaving the company immediately and being replaced on an interim basis by former Chairman and CEO Leland Tollett.

DOJ's release said Tyson personnel were aware that a process used at some plants to render poultry products into protein and fats for the animal food industry would produce H2S gas. The process employs high-pressure steam processors called hydrolyzers. Information filed along with the plea agreement indicates Tyson employees "were exposed to the toxic gas when working on or near the hydrolyzers, which required frequent adjustment and replacement. As of October 2003, corporate safety and regional management were aware that hydrogen sulfide gas was present in the RVAF facilities and three of the four facilities with hydrolyzers had taken measures to protect employees from hydrogen sulfide gas near the hydrolyzers. However, Tyson Foods did not take sufficient steps to implement controls or protective equipment to reduce exposure within prescribed limits or provide effective training to employees on hydrogen sulfide gas at the Texarkana facility despite an identical exposure, resulting in hydrogen sulfide poisoning of an RVAF Texarkana employee in March 2002," according to the release.

The death occurred at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2003, when RVAF maintenance employee Jason Kelley was overcome by gas while repairing a leak from a hydrolyzer. He subsequently died. Another employee and two emergency responders were hospitalized because of their exposures during the rescue attempt, and two employees were treated at the scene. "Federal laws require employers to undertake steps that limit exposure to dangerous substances like the gas that killed Jason Kelley. Tyson Foods willfully ignored these regulations and today is being held responsible," said Ronald J. Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "The Justice Department takes its enforcement responsibility seriously, and companies that ignore these laws and risk their employees' lives will be prosecuted."

Tyson Foods has agreed to pay $500,000, the maximum criminal fine in this case. The company will serve one year of probation.

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