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Leaking Valve Suspected in DuPont Chemical Leak That Killed Four

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Officials believe a leaky valve was partly to blame for a chemical accident that killed four workers at a DuPont plant near Houston and that some of those killed were responding to the leak when they were overcome, the plant manager said.

"There are no words to fully express the loss we feel or the concern and sympathy we extend to the families of the employees and their co-workers," Randall Clements, manager of the plant in La Porte, Texas, said late Saturday. "We are in close touch with them and we are providing them every measure of support and assistance at this time."

The federal Chemical Safety Board said Saturday it was sending a seven-person investigative team to look into the accident.

The names of the workers killed were not released. A fifth employee was taken to the hospital for observation. The deadly accident occurred at 4 a.m. at the facility in La Porte, a suburb about 20 miles southeast of Houston, when the chemical methyl mercaptan was released, the company said. Some of the employees who died were responding to a leak in a valve, Clements said.

The chemical is used to produce the rotten-egg smell in natural gas, making natural gas leaks more noticeable, and in insecticide and fungicide production. In high doses it can cause vomiting, coma, and death, according to federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. The foul-smelling gas spread throughout the area and put the region on edge, but officials said Saturday it had dissipated and was not dangerous.

"We are used to funny smells around here, especially when the wind is out of the north," La Porte resident Dudley Crittendon told NBC station KPRC. "We thought something had died in the house. We started burning candles but it didn't go away."

The Chemical Safety Board in 2011 found "a series of preventable safety shortcomings" at a DuPont facility in Belle, West Virginia, contributed to a 2010 phosgene gas release that killed one worker. Also in 2010, an explosion during welding at a DuPont plant outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killed one worker. The board blamed the company’s failure to monitor flammable gas levels in a storage tank before welding for that accident.

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