Dupont Chemical Leak Kills 4, Leaves 580 Schools At Risk

BY ON November 19, 2014

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On November 15, a chemical leak at a DuPont plant in Texas killed four workers and seriously injured a fifth. The workers were responding to a leak of methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to make insecticides. The same chemical is also used in natural gas to add the rotten egg smell for leak detection.

The plant is in La Porte, Texas, 25 miles from Houston.

The methyl mercaptan that killed the DuPont workers drifted as far as 40 miles away, albeit at non-hazardous levels, where community members noticed the odor.

I asked Amanda Frank, of the Center for Effective Government, for more information about the La Porte plant. I was wondering specifically how many students go to school inside the “vulnerability zone” of this plant – the area that would be in danger in the case of a catastrophic leak or explosion. For the La Porte plant, that zone has a 25-mile radius (the zones differ depending on the chemicals used and stored at the facility). She told me,

There are 580 schools with 349,660 students in the plant’s vulnerability zone.”

Large quantities of toxic chemicals are stored at thousands of factories, water treatment plants, oil refineries, and other industrial sites in our country. These chemicals carry risks to the workers and the surrounding communities – risks that are not adequately addressed by either the industries using them or the agencies regulating them.

Children are especially vulnerable to the unthinkable possibility of a chemical leak or explosion.

  • One in three schoolchildren attends a school inside the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility; and
  • More than 19 million children are at risk. The parents and teachers of these children are not provided information about the chemical security hazards and often have no idea their children attend school inside a vulnerability zone. (You can find out if your children go to school near a hazardous chemical facility here.)

And the risk of chemical disasters falls more heavily on the poor and communities of color, making this an environmental justice issue.

  • People who live inside vulnerability zones are disproportionately African American or Latino and have higher rates of poverty than the U.S. as a whole. This unequal danger is sharply magnified in the “fenceline” areas nearest the facilities.

The La Porte, Texas, tragedy is just the latest in chemical facility disasters.

A fatal explosion in West, Texas, in 2013, killed 15 workers and destroyed three schools. In response, President Obama issued an executive order directing several federal agencies to review chemical safety regulations. As part of this process, EPA requested public input, and Moms Clean Air Force members joined with the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters to deliver 110,000 comments demanding that disaster prevention policies be required across chemical plants and chemical storage facilities. We delivered these comments on October 29.

Group of people holding sign saying 100,000+ Say: Prevent Chemical Disasters Now

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, has opposed reform of chemical safety regulation, calling instead for better enforcement of current laws and voluntary programs. Meanwhile, chemical facilities are not required to use (or even consider using) inherently safer technologies to protect workers and communities.

Center for Effective Government’s Amanda Frank points out how little we really know about the true risks of the La Porte DuPont plant and, by extension, the thousands of other facilities across the country that use and store dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals:

“This plant’s vulnerability zone is based off of its containers of hydrofluoric acid, rather than methyl mercaptan,…Facilities make vulnerability zone calculations based off of their largest single container of a reactive chemical rather than all of them combined.”

This means the official vulnerability zone does not even include the threat of methyl mercaptan, the chemical that killed four workers and drifted 40 miles.

With 580 schools in the official danger zone, we can be sure of one thing, though. As Frank says:

“The plant is putting lots of students at risk,…and now has had a fatal accident.”

Main image: Shutterstock
Photo: Merideth Tumasz, Greenpeace




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TOPICS: Clean Air Rules and Regulations, MCAF News, Schools, Texas, Toxics

  • ChrisPA

    Safety starts at the top of an organization.

    This takes management commitment, worker buy in and of course
    resources which means cash. The recent trend in the corporation starts
    with Ellen Kullman. Her record in safety is amongst the worst of any
    CEO to ever lead the company. She has taken large bonuses and at the
    same time cut workers and the resources to put safety first.

    Many times DuPont takes the “blame the worker” stance on incidents
    and issues. This tends to be self serving and does not really address
    the issues going on in the corporation. Under her leadership the trend
    has been one of a knee jerk reaction and is evident in this most recent
    tragedy. The statement that we will do a “top to bottom investigation”
    is such a reaction. Where was the commitment before the incident? the
    resources? the preventative maintenance? the inspection and all of the
    other key elements in a good Process Safety Management (PSM) program?
    It would be interesting to see if there have been cuts at the plant
    recently especially in light of the attempt to spin off its performance
    chemicals.

    The real issues are never addressed when she sends Aaron Woods to the
    podium as her PR puppet, to make blanket statements such as “safety is a
    core value”. Mr Woods knows nothing of PSM and his statements are to
    fend off litigation that always follows tragedy.This does nothing to
    protect the workers.

    The recent trend within the corporation has been of increased
    incidents increased exposures, and sadly increased deaths. The company
    continues to spew toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Is this the kind
    of “core value” you want in your company? Is the the kind of chemical
    company you want in your back yard?

    Kullman has been oddly quiet on this most recent issue, only
    offering Mr.Woods statement to the public. You would expect a great
    leader to step forward and share the blame for this declining safety.
    The public should be outraged that this leader in safety would have all
    the releases and incident shown to have occurred at La Porte and all
    other sites within the corporation.

    If this corporation wants to be a leader in safety then changes are
    needed and this may start with new management, including a new CEO, one
    that truly wants the “core values they rhetorically state in all
    statements releases by the company.

    Changes are needed before even more devastating incidents happen within DuPont.