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DuPont fined $12 million for deadly gas release in Texas

The chemical company’s successor says the plea deal resolves all matters arising from a 2014 gas release that left four workers dead.

HOUSTON (CN) — DuPont pleaded guilty to Clean Air Act violations in federal court Monday and was fined $12 million for a 2014 chemical release at its Houston-area plant that killed four workers, prosecutors said.

In addition to the fine, E.I. DuPont de Nemours Inc. agreed to make a $4 million community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for projects that benefit air quality around Galveston Bay.

DuPont manufactured pesticides at the plant in La Porte, an industrial city near the Houston Ship Channel, which drains into Galveston Bay. But it idled the facility after the fatal incident before it was closed and sold in 2021.

A DuPont spokesman referred questions about the plea deal to Corteva Agriscience, a company spun out from the 2017 merger of Dow Chemical Company and DuPont that took over DuPont’s line of agricultural products, including pesticides, involved in the 2014 tragedy.

Corteva said in a statement it “deeply regrets the tragic events that occurred on November 15, 2014, at a former EIDP facility in La Porte, Texas. We will never forget the colleagues we lost, and we continue to honor their memory.”

The manager of the production unit at the time of the gas release, Kenneth Sandel, 52, also pleaded guilty Monday and was sentenced to one year of probation.

One of the pesticide ingredients the company used was methyl mercaptan. A colorless gas with a putrid smell, methyl mercaptan occurs naturally in minute amounts in animal tissue, decaying wood, radishes and other plants.

But it is deadly for anyone who breathes in amounts greater than 150 parts per million.

DuPont did not follow its own policies for venting hazardous chemicals after a pipe containing liquid methyl mercaptan became clogged at its plant, according to its Jan. 7, 2021, federal indictment.

Under the impression that high pressure in manufacturing equipment was due to the usual buildup of methyl mercaptan, Crystle Rae Wise opened drain valves around 3 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2014.

But the pipe was still full of the chemical. As the liquid drained from the pipe on the third story of DuPont’s manufacturing unit, it vaporized into gas and escaped into the air.

Wise died instantly from asphyxiation, as did three other DuPont workers who tried to help her. Within hours, 24,000 pounds of the gas had seeped out of the drain valves and injured DuPont workers inside and out of the building and wafted downwind into the neighboring city of Deer Park, Texas.

DuPont decided to permanently shutter the plant after the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released a report on its probe of the incident.

The board found DuPont did not even have working fans on the floor of its plant where the release occurred and even if the fans were functioning, the plant's ventilation system was so faulty the gaseous chemical would have still caused a lethal atmosphere.

The methyl mercaptan detection system was also incorrectly calibrated, federal regulators determined, and the alarm system for it did not go off inside the pesticide manufacturing unit, but in a control room in a different building at the plant.

According to Corteva, DuPont has “fully cooperated with all government investigations and has now resolved all matters with federal, state, and local agencies as well as private parties related to this incident.”

On top of the $16 million in fines and payments Corteva agreed to on Monday, the company paid more than $3 million in 2020 to Texas and the federal government for violations of laws regulating water, air and hazardous waste pollution at the plant.

In October 2015, DuPont settled a lawsuit filed by Wise's daughter on behalf of her estate. The settlement payment amount was not disclosed. But a stipulation in the deal requires DuPont to observe a moment of silence on the tragedy's anniversary at all its U.S. plants through 2025.

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Categories / Business, Criminal, Environment, Health, Regional

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