On Saturday morning, four workers died at a DuPont chemical plant that manufactures the pesticide Lannate in La Porte, Texas after a leak of the poisonous gas methyl mercaptan. A fifth was hospitalized but later released. The plant hasn’t been visited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 2007.
Such a deadly accident without an explosion or fire is unusual, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Methyl mercaptan is subject to a number of federal environmental and safety regulations. But those regulations did not ensure that the plant was a safe place to work. It was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) seven years ago, when it was issued two serious violations for the safe management of highly hazardous chemicals, which could result in toxic or explosive risks. It was fined $1,700 for one and $1,800 for the other, although the latter was later reduced to $1,700.
The plant is also out of compliance with hazardous waste management and air emissions standards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. The agency brought formal enforcement actions against it for violations in 2012 and 2014, resulting in $117,375 in penalties. DuPont is also in discussions with the EPA and Justice Department about these issues at the La Porte plant, which began after a 2008 inspection.
And over the last five years, the plant was cited for violating state law at least two dozen times by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to a review of state records by the Texas Tribune, for failures related to performing routine safety inspections, keeping equipment in working order, and preventing pollution leaks. Most recently, it released 36,500 pounds of sulfur dioxide over the course of three hours in September, well above the allowed limit, and in August last year it leaked 40 pounds of chlorine. Some of the more serious citations resulted in fines of a few thousand dollars.
In a statement about the incident, DuPont said, “There are no words to fully express the loss we feel or the concern and sympathy we extend to the families of the four employees who died on November 15, and their co-workers,” adding, “We are working closely with local, state and federal authorities as they conduct a thorough investigation into the incident, which will take some time. As part of that investigation, we are conducting our own top-to-bottom review of this incident and we will share what we learn with the relevant authorities.” The federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has already dispatched a seven-person team to the plant to investigate.
The CSB has previously inspected accidents at four other DuPont facilities, including two fatal ones. The company also settled a case brought by federal prosecutors that alleged it violated the Clean Air Act between 2006 and 2010 at a plant in Belle West, Virginia. One incident resulted in a worker’s death thanks to exposure to a toxic gas.
But DuPont is far from the only company that puts workers at risk. In 2012, 4,628 workers were killed on the job, and the fatality rate has stayed steady for the past four years. Workers also reported 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses. Last year saw some workplace accidents similar to the DuPont one: a West, Texas fertilizer plant, which hadn’t seen an OSHA inspector since 1985, exploded and killed 14 people; a Louisiana chemical plant, which hadn’t been inspected in two decades, exploded and killed one person while injuring 73; and a grain plant that had never been inspected exploded and killed one person.
OSHA inspections are rare across all industries. The agency has just 1,955 inspectors for the 8 million workplaces under its purview and one inspector for every 67,847 workers, meaning a given plant will see a federal inspector once every 139 years and a state inspector every 79 years. Agencies also often don’t communicate or coordinate with each other, as in the case of the West, Texas fertilizer plant, which was overseen by six different regulators but still fell through the cracks.