In the city of La Porte, TX, a DuPont chemical pesticide plant suffered a tragic accident last year. On November 15, 2014, a catastrophic chemical release spontaneously killed four workers. While the tragic event was reason enough for investigation, what a public records request by the Houston Chronicle reveals is incredibly disturbing as well.
On the day of the accident, chemical concentrations of certain agents were extremely high, but what’s not being revealed is that there were routinely potentially lethal chemical levels within the plant. Day in and day out, many workers were exposed to such conditions.
Apparently, the company had documented problems with the levels in the plant during troubleshooting activities over the past six or so years. While these levels weren’t equivalent to those during the November 15th accident, they were still far above what OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration) deemed safe for human exposure. Despite this, these levels were never actually reported to any OSHA officials, and no official investigation into the problems was ever launched. Some of this information also comes from reports filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which has found itself at odds with the chemical company on occasion.
Over the past few years, TCEQ has cited the DuPont location for numerous emissions violations. According to the company, it is TCEQ policy that, should officials identify any kind of concern beyond their jurisdiction, they will contact the appropriate governing or policing body. That said, there is no record that the TECQ ever contacted OSHA about concerns over chemical levels. Had OSHA been alerted and started an investigation earlier, it’s possible that the problems that lead to the deadly accident this past autumn wouldn’t have existed.
Of course, the “not within our jurisdiction” caveat let’s TECQ off the hook, for the most part, because there is no indication that what they actually observed had anything to do with the problems that led to the accident. The environmental citations they issued, for example, may have been completely unrelated and were able to be serviced by TECQ alone.
In fact, no one had filed any kind of complaint that led to an OSHA investigation in that time. The organization’s records showed that the last time OSHA had inspected the plant was back in 2007. When contacted about inspections, including whether or not the company knew about the chemical levels their workers were exposed to during maintenance, DuPont declined to comment.
Now, however, several bodies are investigating the deaths and will likely offer up their findings in the months to come. Representative Gene Green, whose district includes the area where the events transpired, says that it could be that the investigation by OSHA reveals workplace violations according to their own policies. OSHA has very strict rules for companies that work with chemicals, including directives on how to label and store them. If DuPont is found guilty of violations, they could be asked to pay up in large fines, and also may be forced to redesign their maintenance procedures.