La Porte, TX (WorkersCompensation.com) – A federal grand jury has indicted E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company Inc. and a former employee for their roles in a deadly 2014 chemical release at the La Porte, Texas plant, federal officials said this week.
U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick said in a statement that the Houston grand jury had indicted Kenneth Sandel, 49, of Friendswood, Texas, and representative of the DuPont company on charges of knowingly violating federal safety regulations and negligently releasing an extremely hazardous substance into the air.
The indictments stem from a chemical leak at the DuPont La Porte facility in November of 2014. In that incident, 24,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan – a highly toxic flammable gas – were released into the atmosphere killing three plant employees and a supervisor.
The chemical, which is used in making pesticides, had, unbeknownst to workers, built up in an overflow pipe, according to a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. After trying to unclog pipes containing the chemical, two of the workers were told to relieve the pressure in the overflow pipes. Upon opening the valve, both workers died instantly. Two others – a pair of brothers – died trying to reach them.
A number of other employees at the plant were injured during the incident.
According to the report released in 2019, workers draining liquid from a waste gas vent piping were not aware that the gas was building up through the piping. Poor ventilation, improper safety precautions, non-functioning warning systems and other factors led to a chain of events that resulted in the four deaths.
The DuPont employees died from a combination of asphyxia and acute exposure by inhalation to methyl mercaptan, the report said.
According to the indictment, DuPont and Sandel knowingly failed to implement certain DuPont procedures that were required by federal regulations – such as devising a plan to divert a large volume of methyl mercaptan gas into a waste gas pipe system, while failing to evaluate the safety of such a diversion, and failing to prohibit workers from opening the pipe to the atmosphere.
Sandel was head of DuPont’s Insecticide Business Unit at the plant, Patrick’s office said, and was responsible for ensuring employees in the unit followed applicable Environmental Protection Agency Risk Management Plan safety regulations.
If convicted, Sandel faces up to six years in prison and $250,000 in fines. DuPont would face fines of up to $500,000 or twice the gross gain derived from the offense – whichever is greater, Patrick’s office said.
In a court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy on Jan. 19, Sandel and representatives for DuPont pleaded not guilty.
DuPont did not immediately respond to requests for comment.