Audit: NC improves propane inspections, but lets some violators off easy

lbonner@newsobserver.comOctober 31, 2013 

The state Agriculture Department is doing a better job tracking inspections of propane plants and dispensing sites, according to a state audit. But the agency needs to do more to ensure that rules for handling the highly flammable gas are enforced.

The state Auditor’s Office on Thursday released a follow up to a critical December 2011 audit that found the Agriculture Department was risking public safety by not fining violators where inspections found potential threats to public safety. The 2011 audit found that public schools lost out on $2 million because 80 percent of fines collected would have gone to local districts.

The Agriculture Department is responsible for inspecting plants, delivery trucks, storage facilities and businesses that handle liquefied petroleum gas, or propane.

The Agriculture Department office responsible for propane inspections started using a software program in January to better track and monitor inspections and fines.

The 2011 audit found that $7,100 in fines had been issued during a 12-month period, while the new audit found that the state had issued $16,000 in penalties from Jan. 1 to March 15 this year.

But the new audit faulted the office for not performing timely follow-up inspections and for routinely reducing fines without clear reasons.

Twenty-seven of 80 fines assessed during the audit period were reduced 50 percent, and the severity of violations wasn’t considered when fines were cut, the audit said. Eight of the 27 fines were reduced even though businesses had five or more violations found in the same inspection.

In his response, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said the severity of violations is always taken into account, but assessing fines is discretionary, not mandatory.

This year the legislature passed a law making it clear that the department’s authority to issue fines does not mean it has to if “non-monetary sanctions, education, or training are sufficient to address the underlying violation.”

If a violator corrects problems, fines are generally cut in half, Troxler wrote. The practice encourages compliance and is consistent with the goal of ensuring public safety, Troxler’s letter said.

The audit said Troxler’s reference to the department’s discretion in imposing fines minimized the importance of the audit finding that the department reduces fines even when inspectors have found multiple violations.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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