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New OSHA Penalties For DuPont After Deadly Leak

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday slapped DuPont with a $273,000 fine for safety violations at its plant in La Porte.

DuPont's chemical plant in La Porte.
Photo by U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board DuPont’s chemical plant in La Porte. In November 2014, a toxic gas leak killed four workers inside a unit that manufactures a popular insecticide called Lannate.

Just weeks after blasting DuPont for safety violations following a deadly chemical plant incident last November, federal regulators now say the chemical manufacturing giant’s problems reach even further than they originally thought.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday slapped DuPont with a $273,000 fine for safety violations at its plant in La Porte. That’s on top of fines issued in May stemming from last year’s tragedy, when a toxic chemical leak killed four workers.

Even harsher, the agency also enrolled the company, long considered a leader in safety, in its “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” which concentrates on inspecting employers who have “demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace.” The program mandates follow-up inspections.

The latest penalties come from an expanded investigation of the company’s La Porte plant. An initial inquiry found problems in its insecticide unit, where the November accident happened, resulting in a proposed $99,000 fine. That prompted more scrutiny, and OSHA has now found violations elsewhere at the plant.

“DuPont promotes itself as having a ‘world-class safety’ culture and even markets its safety expertise to other employers, but these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program,” David Michaels, the agency’s director, said in a statement Thursday. “We here at OSHA want DuPont and the chemical industry as a whole to hear this message loud and clear.”

In a May interview with The Texas Tribune, Michaels called the initial $99,000 fine “petty cash” for the multibillion-dollar company and said he wished he could dole out harsher penalties.

DuPont said it has not had the chance to review OSHA’s latest findings. The company is re-evaluating its procedures and says safety is a priority.

“We have and will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure all units are safe to operate,” Aaron Woods, the company’s spokesman, said Thursday.

DuPont has already contested the $99,000 fine, and it also has the option to protest the latest penalties.

On Nov. 15 2014, veteran operator Crystal Rae Wise opened a faulty valve on a pipe carrying methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to manufacture DuPont’s popular insecticide called Lannate. More than 20,000 pounds of the foul-smelling gas — deadly in even small doses — spewed out. Wise was found dead on a stairwell in the insecticide unit several hours later.

The gas also killed three workers who rushed in to help her: Wade Baker and brothers Robert and Gilbert Tisnado.

The six-month investigation that followed focused on the insecticide unit where the accident happened. A follow-up investigation found problems at two other units of the plant — one that makes herbicides, and another that manufactures hydrogen fluoride, a key component of gasoline and many chemical products.

In the herbicide unit, where DuPont makes a weed-killing product for sugarcane growers, the agency found poor safety and operating procedures. In particular, OSHA said, DuPont hadn’t properly examined how to deal with potential leaks of dangerous chemicals — something the agency had also discovered in its investigation of the insecticide unit.

Investigators also alleged that DuPont hadn’t properly inspected and tested equipment at both the herbicide and hydrogen fluoride units. Some of those violations were called “willful,” which means the agencysaysDuPont “purposefully disregarded” safety rules or “acted with plain indifference to employee safety.”

OSHA found three willful violations, and assessed a maximum penalty of $70,000 to each. Four “serious” violations — meaning they could lead to injury or death — added $28,000 in fines, the maximum allowed by law. A final “repeat” violation, which had already been found previously, brought the total penalty to $273,000.

The agency also noted on Thursday that it had uncovered similar violations last year at DuPont’s facilities in Darrow, La., and Deepwater, N.J.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/07/09/new-osha-penalties-dupont-after-deadly-la-porte-le/.

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