DuPont Chemical Plant Kills 4 Employees, Pays $99,000 Fine. That'll Learn 'Em.
Just in case you were wondering, the official worth of a chemical-plant worker's life is just a skosh under $25,000. That's the word from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in its decision to fine a Dupont chemical plant in La Porte, Texas, a whopping $99,000 for safety violations that killed four workers in November 2014. At the time of the accident, which involved a release of poisonous methyl mercaptan gas used in the making of insecticides, people were astonished that the plant management seemed to have no idea exactly what was going on or just how toxic the gas was -- as Rachel Maddow reported, the fumes were so bad that local firefighters had to abandon a search and rescue attempt because their respirators were insufficient to protect them.
And this being Texas, the state wasn't especially worried about too many burdensome regulations on chemical plants, either -- as we all know, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott didn't see any need for chemical plants to disclose what chemicals they had on site, because people could always just drive around and ask plant managers to let them know, nice and neighborly-like.
But it turns out that there was a whole lot wrong at the La Porte plant. The accident happened after a chain of mistakes and breakdowns:
A unit shutdown led to water leaking into a holding tank for methyl mercaptan, a chemical used in the manufacture of insecticides. The mixture resulted in a gel forming on pipes leading from the tank. Efforts to remove the gel, which was causing pressure to build, resulted in the opening of interconnected valves.
“It’s somewhat frequent, getting high pressure in the vent system,” says Dan Tillema, an investigator for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. “Usually it’s from a water condensate, and they drain it on third floor inside the building. In this case, it was the toxic methyl mercaptan liquid in the vent system, but the response was the same. They didn’t have anything to tell them it was different than normal, and they drained the methyl mercaptan into the building where they were standing.”
Only one of the four workers wore a respirator, and he died when he tried to put it on his brother in a futile attempt to save him.* Just to add an extra bit of terrible, the ventilation fans in the building weren't working, either.
In a statement, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels said:
Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place ... Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.
OSHA cited the company for 11 safety violations, including one repeat violation for "not training employees on using the building's ventilation system and other safety procedures, such as how to respond if the fans stopped working." And then it hit DuPont with a mighty $99,000 fine, apparently because as a corporate person, DuPont Chemical doesn't have an actual wrist to slap.
As Think Progress notes, DuPont has a current value of $63.6 billion; the corporation earned $34.7 billion in revenue in 2014. The plant hadn't been inspected by OSHA since 2007, when it paid nominal fines -- both under $2,000 -- for two hazardous chemical violations.
In other news, Republican Presidential candidates are gathering in Oklahoma City this weekend for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where several will no doubt complain that burdensome government regulations are killing jobs.
*Update: The original version of the article stated that none of the four workers wore respirators; one did, but took it off in a brave but futile attempt to save his own dying brother. Wonkette regrets the error.
[ThinkProgress / Rachel Maddow Show / Houston Public Media / Click2Houston / Image: US Chemical Safety Board]
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