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New OSHA Penalties for DuPont After Deadly Leak

Just weeks after blasting DuPont for safety violations following a deadly chemical plant incident last November, federal regulators slapped the manufacturing giant with a new fine for safety violations at its plant in La Porte.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
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.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

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. 

“We have concerns about the safety culture,” David Michaels, the agency's director, said in an interview Thursday. “We expect chemical facilities where highly toxic materials are used to have a culture that focuses on ensuring worker protection. It appears to have broken down.”

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. 

On Thursday, he said fines matter little for any company that large, but shining a spotlight on a company that has long touted a goal of “zero safety incidents” will send a message to employers nationwide.

“The fine isn’t what’s important here. We believe that by telling DuPont that we found willful and repeat violations, they will join us in recognizing the seriousness of this issue,” he said.

DuPont said it has not had the chance to fully review the latest findings, but the company is re-evaluating its procedures and says safety is a priority. 

"DuPont is disappointed with OSHA’s classification, and we will be working with the agency to understand its decision," 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 agency says DuPont "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.

DuPont said it has shut down its herbicide unit to make its own fixes and won't restart it until that work is done. "The review of the HF unit confirmed that the unit is safe to operate," Woods said. 

Adding DuPont to the severe violators program — a list of more than 460 U.S. work sites — means OSHA inspectors will return to La Porte more frequently than normal.

According to agency data, DuPont, with about 63,000 employees around the world, is the second-largest organization to operate a work site on the list. The largest is the U.S. Postal Service, which shows up for violations in Missouri.

“It’s unusual for a large company to go on a severe violators list,” Michaels said. “I believe that this set of citations will be a wake-up call to DuPont, and they will take appropriate steps to protect workers."

A federal safety official made a similar statement four years ago.

After a string of three accidents in 2010 at DuPont's West Virginia plant, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent government watchdog, said a “series of preventable safety shortcomings” ultimately triggered the release of phosgene, a gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I, killing 58-year-old Carl Fish.

“These kinds of findings would cause us great concern in any chemical plant — but particularly in DuPont with its historically strong work and safety culture,” John Bresland, then a CSB board member and former chairman, said in 2011. “In light of this, I would hope that DuPont officials are examining the safety culture company-wide.”

The CSB is also investigating the La Porte episode, and expects to issue a report with recommendations by early next year.

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