Maryland's Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged the operator of a liquefied natural gas terminal at Cove Point yesterday with "willful and serious" violations of safety regulations that led to a fatal explosion last Oct. 6.

The agency proposed to fine Columbia LNG Co., which operates the facility, $22,200. The company has the right to contest the charges at an administrative hearing.

State officials said the company permitted electrical equipment that could spark to be located in "an explosive atmosphere" and failed to maintain its equipment. The firm also failed to provide an adequate warning system, the agency said.

Bruce Quayle, a spokesman for Columbia LNG, said yesterday the company had not yet seen the charges "so we don't feel like we're in a position to comment on them."

Company officials have said the explosion that ripped through an electrical substation was touched off when Charles Bromley, a plant operator, pulled a switch when he discovered volatile natural gas vapors leaking from a conduit seal. The resulting spark ignited the gas, killing the 31-year Bromley and injuring a co-worker, the company said.

Federal officials and a congressional committee also are investigating the accident because of concern that a major leak of the super-cooled liquefied gas could cause a fireball of unknown proportions.

The Cove Point facility is located only three miles from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.

"I think people hold the employer in this sort of hazardous situation to a very high degree of accountability," said Harvey Epstein, Maryland commissioner of labor and industry. Until an accident occurs, "complacency sets in these kinds of industry," he said. Because of that, hazardous industries sometimes fail to introduce new equipment that could reduce the hazard.

"We're looking to these people for a lot of knowledge," he said. "We have our trust and faith in them."

The Cove Point facility converts liquefied natural gas delivered by tankers into natural gas that is delivered by pipeline to customers in Maryland and elsewhere. Currently, the plant is producing about a quarter of its preaccident output and is not expected to resume full production for at least six months.