It's been months since the DuPont chemical spill, but now we're closer to answers about what actually went wrong through a pair of confidential reports — one written by DuPont and one by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — about what happened inside the pesticide unit at the company's La Porte plant on November 15, 2014. The thing is, it's looking like there's a choice of who to actually to blame for the accident — DuPont's safety culture, or the workers themselves — depending on which report you read. If, that is, the reports themselves are ever made public.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, DuPont's study of the accident blames the workers for what went wrong. This is despite the company having already been fined by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for working conditions that OSHA said led the deaths of four workers. Last November, a release of 23,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan – a chemical that, when inhaled at high enough levels, attacks the central nervous system and causes death by respiratory paralysis – killed DuPont workers Crystle Wise, Wade Baker and brothers Robert and Gibby Tisnado.
Somehow DuPont is still maintaining that the accident was caused by workers at the plant. DuPont hasn't actually released the report that they cited to back up their claims, but a DuPont representative sent out a summary of the report to the Houston Chronicle. The summary reportedly talked about clogged pipes at the La Porte facility and the practice that workers had of opening valves to clear the pipes and to respond to pressure alarms (a very bad idea if you aren't absolutely sure the pipes are clear) as reasons that things went wrong at the plant, according to the Chronicle.
But while DuPont has tried to blame its employees, the CSB, the other federal agency investigating the accident, has pointed the finger at DuPont itself. Members of the CSB, a non-regulatory body that is called in to investigate the worst industrial accidents, have said that the accident stems from problems in DuPont's safety culture. The CSB has its own confidential report that it has yet to release but investigators did present a slideshow-type of report on what they've concluded about DuPont at a July meeting.
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What little we've learned about the CSB report is troubling. In its briefing on the report, the CSB said that the gas detectors set up to find any methyl mercaptan leaks were ineffective and didn't give workers enough of a warning to protect them or the public from exposure to the highly toxic chemical. In fact, the whole system was apparently out of whack. First there were methyl mercaptan releases on both November 13 and November 14. Then, before the fatal chemical release on November 15, 2014, the CSB contends that multiple detectors set up to catch any highly toxic emissions sounded in the hours leading up to the spill. However, the DuPont emergency personnel wasn't notified and the workers in the area were not evacuated. CSB says there were ventilation problems throughout the facility, making it difficult for workers to breathe long enough to get to safety. The stairwells weren't ventilated at all; one of the victims was found in a stairwell.
The CSB report highlights other problems in DuPont's system. For one thing, it notes that there are still pressure relief systems inside the pesticide manufacturing process that are "improperly designed and do not effectively ensure that highly toxic, highly flammable and asphyxiating chemicals are discharged to safe locations as required by industry codes and standards." The report also pointed out that the regular manufacturing areas have a larger inventory of hazardous materials but it isn't ventilated, despite the fact that a lot of workers are regularly in the area. Even more concerning, the area in the plant where the largest methyl mercaptan release occurred still hasn't been tested for how well the unit's ventilation system could clear the air of toxic fumes.
And this is all information we've learned from just a mere glimpse of the CSB's confidential report. The CSB recently announced that it will be holding a meeting at the Houston Hotel on September 30. During the meeting there will be a vote on whether to release the report or not.
As of right now, DuPont doesn't appear to have any intention of releasing its own report — they haven't even sent us that summary that the Chron got — at the same time that it appears intent on blaming the workers. If this was so clearly the fault of employees, we're hoping that both DuPont and the CSB decide to throw down the gauntlet and make their reports public. With two distinctly different versions of the story floating around out there, wouldn't everyone benefit most from having both reports in front of them so we can all draw our own conclusions? We certainly think so, and we hope both entities end up agreeing.