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The Texas chemical plant where four workers died over the weekend after a leak of a toxic chemical used in insecticides has been cited dozens of times by state and federal regulators since 2007 -- the last time federal inspectors visited the plant.
The workers at the DuPont plant in La Porte, about 30 miles southeast of Houston, died early Saturday after an estimated 100 pounds of methyl mercaptan leaked because of a faulty valve, company representatives said. A fifth worker was hospitalized but is expected to recover, the company said.
Methyl mercaptan is a main component of the popular insecticide Lannate, and exposure to even small amounts of the chemical can be fatal.
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State records show that the plant in La Porte has been cited for violating state law more than two dozen times by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since Sept. 1, 2009. Most of the violations appear to be relatively minor record-keeping and signage infractions, but on at least four occasions the plant was cited for failing to prevent hazardous emissions from spewing into the air.
One of those was a seven-hour, six-minute “event” on Oct. 14, 2009, when the plant emitted 3,700 pounds of methylene choride -– a “hazardous air pollutant” used in the manufacture of Lannate.
The Texas Tribune reported Monday that DuPont was initially fined about $10,300 for failing to prevent the release and for reporting the incident five days late. The company ultimately paid $8,269, with the rest deferred "upon timely and satisfactory compliance," records show.
Inspectors from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also cited the plant for four “serious” safety violations when they last inspected it on Jan. 25, 2007. The company was ultimately fined a total of $3,400 for two other violations of standards for safe management of highly hazardous chemicals. The other two violations were informally settled.
The plant is also out of compliance with hazardous waste management and air emissions standards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. The agency brought formal enforcement actions against it for violations in 2012 and 2014, resulting in $117,375 in penalties, it said.
Asked for comment on the plant’s safety record by NBC News, DuPont spokesman Dan Turner responded with this statement:
“Safety and environmental stewardship are DuPont core values. We are committed to meeting or exceeding all applicable state and federal regulatory requirements, and we will continue to cooperate fully with current regulatory reviews.”
Seven investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is leading the federal probe of the accident, were interviewing shift workers and other possible witnesses to the accident on Monday, but had not yet been able to access to the area where the leak and deaths occurred, said investigation supervisor Johnnie Banks. He described the room as an approximately five-story enclosed structure with piping, valves and other equipment.
"DuPont is taking steps to assure the area is safe to access,” he said. “We will be evaluating that process and when we determine it is safe for our team members to document the site we will enter.
He said investigators have asked DuPont “to preserve the status of the process, valve and other equipment settings as close as possible to where they were at the time of the accident” and also would request documentation on maintenance schedules, operator training, equipment histories, hazard analyses and other information critical to determining the root cause of the accident.