DuPont is continuing to contest all violations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with last year’s chemical leak that killed four workers at the La Porte plant, records show.
OSHA proposed $99,000 in penalties against the chemical giant in May after documenting 11 violations in connection with the quadruple fatality last November.
DuPont, which had an estimated $35 billion in sales revenue last year, filed notice with OSHA earlier this month stating it contests all of the OSHA citations “in their entirety.”
The company’s attorney noted in the letter to OSHA that DuPont would like to continue to meet with government officials to discuss “resolving this matter short of a hearing on the merits.”
Union leaders reacted angrily.”DuPont should drop their legal challenge and put their money where it needs to be — with these workers’ families and ensuring safety in this plant,” Frank Cyphers, president of the International Chemical Workers Union Council, said in a statement.
The union also called for an end to DuPont’s “World Class Employee Safety Consulting” business, saying that DuPont should focus on safety in its own plants.
DuPont spokesman Aaron Woods did not respond to specific questions, instead issuing a statement that said: “We are working with OSHA to better understand the citations and the associated requirements.”
OSHA’s citations, issued May 14, included one repeat violation, nine serious violations and one other than serious violation, records show.
There is more at stake for DuPont than money. Matt Shudtz, executive director for the Center for Progressive Reform, said DuPont risks landing in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) because one of the citations issued in May was for a “repeat” violation.
Investigators drew parallels between the La Porte leak and a 2011 accident at a DuPont plant in West Virginia, where a veteran worker died after a hose ruptured and sprayed him with phosgene gas.
The “repeat” violation in La Porte was issued 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, records show.
Shudtz said there can be “significant consequences” for ending up on the severe violator list, including increased monitoring and potential for company-wide settlement agreements.
“Top officials at OSHA and the Solicitor’s office now have a chance to be part of the settlement discussions and I’d expect them to get tough with DuPont,” Shudtz said.
Brent Coon, an attorney who is suing DuPont on behalf of the family of one of the workers who died in the La Porte leak, said the company’s decision to challenge the violations is “insulting.”
“They want to come back at the end of the day and say: all those fines have been removed,” he said. “It’s a political issue. It’s a public relations issue. And ultimately, it’s a collateral damage issue.”
At a public meeting earlier this month, the plant’s manager acknowledged oversights in safety procedures that contributed to the deaths.
On Nov. 15, a worker opened a drain on vent line inside a tower where the company produces Lannate, a potent and popular pesticide, records show.
The worker was trying to clear clogs after water was mistakenly added to a storage tank holding methyl mercaptan and caused ice-like blockages. Methyl mercaptan, a colorless gas that smells of overripe onions, depresses the central nervous system at high doses and can cause respiratory paralysis.
In order to clear those plugs, DuPont plant manager Randy Clements said, valves on the transfer line were regularly left open. Each time a plug was cleared, large quantities of the chemical were released into the building through the vent system.
John Morawetz, a health and safety investigator with the ICWUC, said Thursday that there remained too many unanswered questions.
“Why weren’t there adequate warning devices?” he asked. “Why wasn’t there a safe procedure to free plugged lines?”
The La Porte accident remains under investigation by the Chemical Safety Board, Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.