On Saturday morning, people living near the DuPont chemical plant in La Porte awoke to the rotten-egg smell of methyl mercaptan, the chemical used to scent natural gas so you can sniff out a leak before your house explodes. By day's end, news had surfaced that one plant worker was injured and another four killed during an accidental methyl mercaptan release at the company's 800-acre complex earlier that morning.
What exactly caused the fatal leak that killed Wade Baker, Crystle Rae Wise, and brothers Robert and Gilbert "Gibby" Tisnado will only be revealed in the coming weeks and months as state officials and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board continue to investigate the incident (an eight-person CSB team began its investigation Monday morning). "Our goal in investigating this accident is to determine the root cause and make recommendations to prevent any similar accidents throughout the industry," said CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz in a statement.
As for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, spokesman Terry Clawson assured that "no off-site impacts to public health or to the environment have been identified," and said the agency is still responding to complaints about foul odors in the area. Clawson pointed out that TCEQ's own reports indicate DuPont has had "satisfactory" compliance with environmental regulations in recent years.
That's quite a curve, even considering "satisfactory" is regulator-speak for a middle-of-the-pack C student. "Satisfactory" by TCEQ standards apparently means numerous enforcement actions, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and more than four dozen written violation notices within five years.
In 2010, DuPont was fined $10,336 for releasing some 3,700 pounds of methylene chloride, a hazardous chemical that OSHA considers a "potential occupational carcinogen," when a pressure gauge failed at the La Porte plant. TCEQ also cited the company for failing to properly report the incident. In 2011, TCEQ fined DuPont $9,075 for more reporting failures.
In 2012, records show state regulators fined DuPont $7,500 when a broken tube at the plant released 1,900 pounds of ethylene, a hydrocarbon used in chemical manufacturing; TCEQ wrote in its report that the emissions release "could have been avoided by better operational practices." The plant was fined another $11,040 because of problems with a hydrogen fluoride scrubber later that year.
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In 2012 and in 2014, TCEQ fined the plant a total of $117,375 for Clean Water Act violations. On top of that, the company currently has a $114,863 fine pending for air emissions violations last year. For those of you keeping track at home, that's more than $270,000 in penalties since 2010 in order to earn that "satisfactory" rating from the TCEQ (the company only paid part of that amount, mind you; thousands were deferred for "expedited settlement" with the state).
And those are only violations for which DuPont had to dip into its very deep ($35.7 billion in revenue last year) pockets. Since November 2009, DuPont's La Porte plant has racked up 51 notices of violation with the state. Those violations range from shoddy reporting to problems like failing to conduct required hazardous waste tank inspections. In recent years, the company's been cited for "failure to conduct weekly inspections of pressure sensing devices" and for failing to even attempt to repair leaks days after they were detected. DuPont's La Porte plant uses methyl mercaptan -- the chemical that evidently killed four workers this weekend -- to produce methomyl, a highly toxic pesticide that it markets under the name Lannate. Last year, TCEQ cited the company for failing to operate its Lannate incinerator on site "within required parameters."
It's not yet clear what led to this weekend's deadly incident. Horowitz with CSB has said this appears to be the first fatal release of methyl mercaptan the agency has ever seen. According to accounts the Chron gleaned from the Tisnado family, three of the four victims of the fatal chemical release -- Wade Baker, Robert and "Gibby" Tisnado -- died trying to save their coworkers.
DuPont, in a statement Monday, said it's conducting its own "top-to-bottom review of this incident."