A federal grand jury on Thursday issued a 22-count indictment against Steve Braithwaite, president and owner of Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services LLC, related to worker safety incidents that led to a fatal explosion and the deaths of two workers at its Omaha facility in 2015. 

Braithwaite in December 2017 purchased a 12-acre tract of land from the City of Des Moines and was selected as the planned operator of a railcar transloading facility planned east of downtown Des Moines. 

City and Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization officials told the Business Record in late July that construction of the planned facility would begin early this month. Rita Conner, the city’s economic development director, and Todd Ashby, MPO director, said at that time that the city and MPO were satisfied that Braithwaite had adequately addressed concerns raised by a competing bidder for the project who had alerted officials to Braithwaite’s OSHA violations. 

"We are monitoring the situation," Ashby said in an emailed response to the Business Record's request for comment. Conner could not be immediately reached for comment.

MPO spokesman Gunnar Olson said the delay in the start of construction of the facility, which was expected to begin earlier this month, is not due to the Justice Department investigation but rather has been on hold due to selection of a construction contractor. The MPO did not provide an updated timeline for the start of construction. 

The proposed transload facility, to be built on the site of a former auto salvage yard just north of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway between East 14th and 15th streets, was supposed to begin operation in the fall of 2015, following an extensive feasibility study conducted by the MPO.

Braithwaite and Nebraska Railcar co-owner and Vice President Adam Braithwaite were charged in Thursday’s grand jury indictment with conspiracy, violating worker safety standards resulting in worker deaths, violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which governs hazardous waste management, and submitting false documents to a federal agency. Adam Braithwaite was also charged with perjury. 

An indictment is merely a formal charging document and is not evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty. 

According to the indictment, Nebraska Railcar and Steve and Adam Braithwaite failed to implement worker safety standards and then tried to cover that up during an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The defendants also mishandled hazardous wastes removed from rail tanker cars during the cleaning process. 

Two of the company’s workers were later killed and another injured when the contents of a railcar ignited while being cleaned.

“Protecting the health and safety of American workers at hazardous job sites is of paramount importance,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Wood in a statement. “The defendants in this case failed to live up to that responsibility, even falsifying documents to evade worker safety requirements. Tragically, employees at the defendants’ facility lost their lives while working in these unsafe conditions.” 

The indictment alleges that after a 2013 inspection of Nebraska Railcar, Steve Braithwaite entered into a written agreement where he represented that Nebraska Railcar had been testing for benzene since July 2014. An indictment is merely a formal charging document and is not evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.

After OSHA returned to Nebraska Railcar in March 2015 to conduct a follow-up inspection and was turned away by Steve Braithwaite, Steve and Adam Braithwaite created documents that were submitted to OSHA to falsely show that NRCS had been purchasing equipment to test the contents of railcars for benzene and had taken other required safety precautions. 

During inspections by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 and 2014 respectively, Nebraska Railcar was informed that it was required to test its wastes to determine if they were hazardous in order to properly dispose of them, rather than send all untested waste to a landfill not permitted to receive hazardous waste. The indictment alleges that was not done before April 2015.

On April 14, 2015, the contents of a railcar ignited while being cleaned by Nebraska Railcar employees. Two employees were killed and a third injured. Two days after the explosion, Nebraska Railcar had three railcars tested to assess whether their contents were hazardous; two were determined to be hazardous.

“Whenever a company or its employees knowingly fail to comply with environmental laws, both the public and the environment are placed at risk,” said Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This case demonstrates the importance of environmental compliance to safeguard public health and safety.”