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DEQ hands out a record number of fines in 2002

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ The Department of Environmental Quality fined more companies in 2002 for violations of state regulations than it has its entire history.

The department issued $2.6 million in fines and collected more than $2.1 million.

``You can't start out with hardcore enforcement. You have to ease your way in to it,'' said Mista Turner, an environmental attorney for DEQ. ``As an agency overall, this is where we have been headed for years.''

The DEQ handed out 210 fines in 2002, about one fine for every two violation cases opened during the past year, according to DEQ records.

In June, a Tulsa World analysis of DEQ's data found that the department completed about 5,000 enforcement actions since it started in 1993.

Fines were handed out in 159 cases, which was equivalent to about one fine for every 25 enforcement actions, according to the Tulsa World's analysis.

An enforcement action is what happens when the department's legal branch opens a case file to deal with a violation. During 2002, the department opened 396 such files.

Increasing the number of fines issued in one year by a tenfold amount over the average of previous years was not a result of a change in the department's mission or management, DEQ spokesman Michael Dean said.

``I don't think there was ever a change,'' Dean said. ``This was the way we were headed. Mark Coleman had been on this road, and Steve Thompson just continued down the same path.''

Mark Coleman, DEQ executive director from the time of its founding, retired at the end of June 2002. Thompson, the longtime deputy DEQ director, became executive director the next month.

``What you see in enforcement data is that most of the people and industries in the state are following the rules,'' Dean said. ``The ones that are receiving the fines are often the real problem children. The increase in fines is an example of where being nice just didn't work anymore.''

At the end of June, the DEQ handed a record $2.16 million fine to western Oklahoma's Red Carpet Landfill.

Red Carpet's challenge of the fine is pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Enforcement cases opened in the past year also resulted in more than $16.7 million in supplemental environmental projects. They led to work that significantly reduced air pollution in the state, DEQ attorney Kendal Cody said.

Supplemental environmental projects require a violator to spend part of their fine, or money in addition to a fine, to improve the surrounding area.

Projects at a refinery and a natural gas company accounted for 97 percent of the total supplemental environmental projects for the year and offered two good examples of what such projects can accomplish, Cody said.

TPI, formerly Total Petroleum Inc. and now part of Valero Energy Corp., paid the largest fine _ $1.5 million _ and performed the costliest supplemental project spending $16 million to clean up problems at the refinery in Ardmore.

``They were all historical violations,'' Cody said. ``They came in and worked with us to clean up their air problems.''

In a costly retrofit, initiated after Ultramar Diamond Shamrock purchased the plant in 1997 and completed by Valero, the refinery reduced the amount of nitrogen oxide released during operations, Cody said.

Nitrogen oxide lowers air quality and leads to ground-level ozone formation on hot, sunny days.

Natural Gas Pipeline Co. No. 184 in Beckham County in southwestern Oklahoma was required to review all of its processes and equipment after a plant modification caused it to emit significantly more pollutants, Cody said.

The company paid a $76,332 fine for the violations and $200,000 for equipment upgrades.
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