Victims of DuPont in Texas

November 19, 2014

Nicole Colson reports on the death of four workers at a DuPont chemical plant.

FOUR WORKERS are dead after a chemical leak at a DuPont plant in La Porte, Texas, on November 15.

The leak of 100 pounds of methyl mercaptan, a chemical used as an additive in jet fuel and as an ingredient in an insecticide called Lannate, occurred because of a faulty valve at the facility. The chemical causes nausea and fluid buildup in the lungs--exposure to even small amounts can be fatal. The employees who died were trying to contain the leak when they were overcome.

Among the dead were Crystal Rae Wise, brothers Gilbert and Robert Tisnado, and Wade Baker. According to reports, Robert Tisnado and Wade Baker ran into the building where Wise was calling for help as she tried to contain the leak. After the three succumbed to the fumes, Gilbert Tisnado ran into the building with a gas mask to help, but became a victim himself.

"This is a risk we all take," Gilbert Tisnado, the father of the two brothers and also a chemical plant worker, told the Houston Chronicle. "If you go work at a plant, you never know if you are going to come back home."

Gilbert and Robert Tisnado, victims of a deadly leak at a DuPont chemical plant
Gilbert and Robert Tisnado, victims of a deadly leak at a DuPont chemical plant

Tisnado called the deaths a "freak accident." But according to the Texas Tribune, the plant has been cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) dozens of times in the past five years for various health, safety and operations violations. These include failure "to perform routine safety inspections, keep equipment in proper working order and prevent unauthorized pollution leaks, according to violation notices issued by the agency," according to reporter Neena Satija.

Yet the fines assessed by the TCEQ never amounted to more than "a few thousand dollars from DuPont for more serious lapses," Satija reported.

Reports show the DuPont plant has actually been cited a total of 51 times by the TCEQ since 2009 for failing to prevent unauthorized pollution leaks and not maintaining proper records. However,

According to the Houston Chronicle, the DuPont plant "avoided more scrutiny in part because there are Houston-area refiners and chemical makers with longer lists of violations."

This isn't the first time the plant experienced problems with the specific unit that produces Lannate either. According to the Texas Tribune:

At least one of the previous fines levied against DuPont was issued for a pollutant leak that occurred in October 2009--also at a unit of the plant that manufactures Lannate. Too much pressure had built up in a vent system, causing a relief valve to open and spew out 3,700 pounds of methylene chloride, a "hazardous air pollutant," according to state records. More commonly known as dichloromethane, exposure to it in high enough concentrations can cause lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting. It's also considered a potential carcinogen.

At that time, the TCEQ fined DuPont about $10,300 for failing to prevent the release and for reporting the incident five days late. The company ultimately paid $8,269, with the rest deferred "upon timely and satisfactory compliance," records show.

Last year, the plant had another leak--this time, of 40 pounds of chlorine, also a component of Lannate. Two more safety violations were reported this year--the inadvertent release of carbon monoxide in March, and then in September, the release of sulfur dioxide in levels far above what is legally allowed.

According to the Houston Chronicle:

The biggest penalty came in November 2012, when the state levied a $91,125 fine for emissions after two reviews showed a failure to limit residual chlorine, methomyl and other effluents. DuPont paid about 40 percent of the fine and made a similarly sized contribution to a pollution prevention project that restored a shoreline in Galveston Bay. TCEQ considers the facility's compliance to be "satisfactory."

THE CYCLE of dangerous safety violations and paltry fines that aren't even paid in full is normal operating procedure in the U.S. chemical industry--multibillion-dollar companies like DuPont are routinely cited for their failures to comply with various standards, but they get the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. It's usually cheaper for them to pay government fines running in the thousands and continue with business as usual than to overhaul their facilities--which is why DuPont has a long rap sheet of safety and environmental violations.

Meanwhile, in 2012 alone, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman received compensation valued at more than $12.7 million.

It's rare for state or local governments to step in and threaten a corporate giant like DuPont when it comes to workplace safety. According to reports, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn't visited the La Porte plant for an inspection since 2007--and that's par for the course for a federal agency that has been hollowed out by continuous cutbacks in the age of austerity.

However, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB)--the federal agency that investigates serious chemical accidents--has investigated multiple accidents at four other DuPont plants across the U.S. In one instance, phosgene--a highly toxic gas that is used today in organic compounds, but was once employed as a chemical weapon during the First World War--was released at a West Virginia DuPont plant in January 2010. One worker died as a result of exposure to the gas when a steel hose connected to a tank of the gas ruptured.

According to the CSB, "The phosgene release followed two other accidents at the same plant in the same week, including an ongoing release of chloromethane from the plant's F3455 unit, which went undetected for several days, and a release from a spent sulfuric acid unit."

Later that same year, an accident at DuPont facility in Tonawanda, New York, left one worker dead and another injured after welding near a tank of flammable vinyl fluoride ignited vapor. According to the CSB, safety measures were overlooked.

While the exact cause of the leak at the DuPont facility in La Porte hasn't yet been made clear, one thing is certain: Crystal Rae Wise, Gilbert and Robert Tisnado and Wade Baker deserved better than to die in the pursuit of DuPont's profits.

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