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Judge Rejects Pollution Plea, Demands Company’s Top Man

June 22, 1989

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) _ A federal judge Wednesday refused to accept a guilty plea in spills involving more than 75,000 gallons of a cancer-causing substance, demanding that a chemical company send its top executive.

″Before I accept this ..., the top officer of your company will be here,″ U.S. District Judge Jack Tanner told Pennwalt Corp. Senior Vice President Marty Schwartzberg.

Tanner expressed dissatisfaction with a plea bargain under which the Philadelphia-based company would pay $1.1 million for the two spills.

″Do you think throwing money at it corrects or deters?″ he asked Assistant U.S. Attorney David Marshall. ″The public ultimately pays.″

The judge called for accountability. ″I think the people in this community and throughout the United States want to know what happened and who is responsible,″ he said. ″Who are these people?″

At least 75,000 gallons of a solution containing sodium dichromate spilled into Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway in 1985 when a poorly maintained 180,000-gallon storage tank ruptured.

An undetermined amount of the carcinogen reached the waterway, which connects with Puget Sound, during an overflow last year.

Tanner told attorneys in the case on May 30 that he would not accept Pennwalt’s plea unless a company executive was present. At the time, he didn’t say which executive he wanted.

″I don’t think they had ever conceived of this,″ Pennwalt spokeswoman Perrin Kaplan said after the hearing.

In addition to Schwartzberg, George Reath, senior vice president for legal matters, and William Fell, president of the company’s inorganic chemical division, attended the hearing, as well as Don Elliott of Pennwalt’s Tacoma plant.

Marshall, who spent weeks negotiating the plea bargain, told Tanner he was satisfied that Schwartzberg and Fell were very high in the company, ″and should be able to answer any questions the court has.″

Under the plea bargain, $600,000 of the $1.1 million the company would pay would go to the Coast Guard to fund spill cleanups in Puget Sound or extend the Coast Guard’s vessel tracking system to Tacoma.

In exchange, the government would drop criminal charges against three Pennwalt executives in Philadelphia. One of the three has left the company, and the other two were moved to different divisions, Ms. Kaplan said.

Tanner rescheduled the plea hearing for July 19.

Attorney Tom Kelly of Seattle, representing Pennwalt would not say whether company President Seymour Preston would appear.

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