By Brian Gumm, Center for Effective Government
One year ago, a toxic chemical leak at a DuPont plant in La Porte, Texas killed four workers, including grandmother Crystle Wise. A massive leak of 23,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan erupted in the plant’s pesticide manufacturing building in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 2014, and Wise and other co-workers died when they were overcome trying to stop the leak.
The La Porte plant, located in the Houston area, had ongoing safety problems in the years leading up to the leak. Reports filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2008 and beyond showed that workers in the plant’s pesticide unit were repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals at levels well above worker safety standards.
In fact, releases of the same chemical that killed the four workers were detected by monitoring equipment on each of the two days before the tragic incident, but were never reported or investigated by DuPont as a serious safety concern. Furthermore, no one ever alerted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to these dangers, even though they violated federal workplace safety standards.
So, one year later, has safety improved? No.
DuPont isn’t the only large chemical company with serious safety violations.
DuPont isn’t the only large chemical company with serious health, safety, and environmental problems. A recent Center for Effective Government report, Blowing Smoke, looked at 12 large companies in the U.S. chemical industry that collectively own and operate 644 active chemical manufacturing facilities with serious health and safety or environmental violations in the past three to five years.
Seven of the 12 companies (DuPont, Arkema, Mitsubishi Chemical, Honeywell, BASF, Dow, and Chemtura) are members of the industry’s main trade association, the American Chemistry Council, and should have been following its Responsible Care® program guidelines. The chemical industry says voluntary standards work, but our investigation suggests otherwise.
Chemical incidents happen every other day in the U.S. Is anything being done?
The rash of fires, explosions, leaks, and other incidents at U.S. chemical plants contradicts the industry’s rhetoric. Two-and-a-half years ago, 15 Americans were killed and 200 injured in a fertilizer facility explosion in West, Texas that also destroyed surrounding schools, a nursing home, and residences. Since that time, more than 400 incidents have occurred at facilities across the country, a rate of roughly one incident every two days.
The West, Texas disaster sparked a much-needed discussion of the dangers that facilities can pose to local communities. In the wake of the West explosion, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing OSHA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Homeland Security to improve chemical facility safety and security.
The Center for Effective Government and the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters have repeatedly urged these agencies to require chemical facilities to use inherently safer chemicals and technologies where feasible. This approach is the best and most effective way to prevent chemical disasters like the ones at La Porte and West. But the EPA has missed its own schedule for proposing a chemical facility safety rule and is unlikely to get one finalized before the end of Obama’s tenure.
Moreover, the current fines assessed against violators are not a deterrent. When OSHA and the EPA inspected a sample of facilities from the 12 large companies highlighted in our report, they found 679 serious violations in just three to five years, which resulted in nearly $25 million in estimated penalties. But these companies’ collective profits were at least $20 billion in 2014 alone, making those fines just a “cost of doing business.” It’s simply cheaper to pay the fine than it is to upgrade or replace aging or failing equipment.
We need to act now to protect workers and the public from dangerous chemical facilities.
More needs to be done to make chemical plants safer, and there are several ways to more effectively protect workers, communities, and the environment from chemical disasters.
- Require all companies to shift to safer chemicals and technologies. The best and most effective way for EPA and OSHA to prevent injuries, deaths, and chemical disasters is to require chemical companies and facilities to switch to inherently safer chemicals and technologies when they are available. The EPA is currently developing a facility safety rule and should include a requirement that chemical facilities make the switch to safer chemicals whenever feasible.
- Expand the number of chemical manufacturing facilities that are regularly inspected. To make this happen, Congress will need to restore and then expand enforcement budgets at EPA and OSHA. EPA’s enforcement budget was cut 20 percent between 2010 and 2015 (when adjusted for inflation), and OSHA’s fell 14 percent.
- Significantly increase the financial and criminal penalties for violating safety and environmental standards to create a real deterrent for risky corporate behavior. Congress recently made some progress in this area by directing OSHA to increase its shockingly low penalties for the first time since 1990 and then adjusting them for inflation in the future. The agency is due to set new maximum penalties sometime next year. Serious violations could result in a maximum fine of $12,500, up from $7,000, and willful violations could garner a maximum of $125,000, compared to the current $70,000, though those new maximums could be lower depending on the outcome of OSHA’s rulemaking process. These fines will still be too small, especially compared to other agencies; for example, the EPA can level penalties of $320,000 for some serious violations.
- Make more information more accessible and available to workers, residents, and citizen groups in order to hold the owners of risky facilities more accountable to ordinary American workers and consumers.
Chemical plant workers and all Americans living near potentially dangerous facilities deserve better. You can help right now by contacting EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org and urging her to move swiftly on a chemical plant safety rule that includes requirements for facilities to use safer chemicals.