Energy & Environment

DuPont ordered to pay $16 million for deadly 2014 LaPorte plant chemical leak

The company pleaded guilty, along with Kenneth Sandel, who was the unit operations leader of the Insecticide Business Unit at the LaPorte plant where the accident occurred.


Four plant workers died from exposure to poisonous gas at the La Porte DuPont chemical plant, November 15, 2014.

The DuPont Company was ordered to pay millions in penalties and put on probation for a deadly 2014 accident that killed four employees at a Houston-area plant.

The company pleaded guilty, along with Kenneth Sandel, who was the unit operations leader of the Insecticide Business Unit at the LaPorte plant where the accident occurred. U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered DuPont to pay a $12 million penalty and serve a two-year probation where they must give the U.S. Probation Office full access to its operating locations.

Sandel will serve one year of probation. The company will also make a $4 million community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"Four employees are dead because of DuPont's criminal negligence," said U.S. Attorney Alamdar Hamdani in a press release. "The sentence imposed today sends a clear message of my office's dedication to holding managers at industrial facilities, and the corporations that own and operate those facilities, accountable for violations of federal criminal laws; laws meant to protect the safety of workers and nearby communities."

In November 2014, DuPont released approximately 24,000 pounds of a highly toxic, flammable gas called methyl mercaptan (MeSH) into the air. In addition to killing the four workers, the chemical release injured other DuPont employees and travelled downwind into the surrounding areas, including Deer Park. Several others were injured.

According to Hamdani's office, the accident occurred after an employee inadvertently left open a piping valve which caused a slushy material to block the flow of liquid. To melt it, DuPont day shift employees began applying hot water to the outside of the blocked piping and opened other valves to vent MeSH gas into a waste gas system. The MeSH piping was still blocked at the end of the day.

Hamdani's office said as the IBU leader, Sandel was responsible for ensuring shift supervisors, operators and engineers understood and complied with government safety, health and environmental regulations. Sandel was also responsible for implementing a safety procedure at the IBU by making sure employees understood and followed the procedure's requirements and did not release toxic chemicals inappropriately to the environment.

The press release added that "Sandel and other employees failed to provide sufficient instructions to the oncoming shift for how to safely clear remaining blockage."

"It finally cleared early the next morning, and a large volume of liquid MeSH began flowing into the waste gas system. At that time, an employee mistakenly believed the waste gas system only contained materials present during normal operations and opened valves that resulted in the release of the toxic gas."

Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said: "This case demonstrates the importance of holding chemical facilities accountable for implementing chemical safety requirements that are designed to protect workers and neighboring communities."

Hamdani's office also said that records indicate employees at DuPont's LaPorte plant disregarded a federally mandated safety procedure when opening those valves on the waste system.

"Sandel should have known operators did not have a safe and effective way to drain the vent system and should have prevented it from happening."

As part of the pleas, DuPont and Sandel admitted to negligently releasing an extremely hazardous substance into the ambient air. The company also acknowledged negligently placing a person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

The Insecticide Business Unit has since been demolished.