LA PORTE, Texas — State records show dozens of minor or moderate state environmental violations since 2009 at a Houston-area DuPont chemical plant where four people died from toxic fumes over the weekend.
The plant, however, which covers 600 acres along the Houston Ship Channel in LaPorte and has operated since 1956, has received a satisfactory rating from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the agency’s records. The plant holds more than 150 environmental permits covering air, water and handling of hazardous material.
A team of investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began work at the plant Monday, two days after the four employees died in the release of methyl mercaptan — a chemical used in the manufacture of insecticide and fungicide and also used to provide odor to natural gas.
The toxic chemical, which is described as smelling like rotten eggs or rotten cabbage, causes eye and skin irritation and rapidly affects the respiratory system.
It was not immediately clear what caused Saturday’s chemical release.
“Our initial investigation plans are to examine the accident site, conduct initial interviews with witnesses, if any, as well as key operators and managers, and to request documentation on a range of relevant activities, such as maintenance histories of key equipment, training and work schedules,” CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz said.
DuPont said in a statement it was “working closely” with investigators and that the probe “will be extremely thorough and will take some time to complete.”
The leak and the deaths occurred in an enclosed structure, about five stories high, with piping, valves and other equipment, CSB investigator Johnnie Banks said in a statement. The CSB investigation team was unable to enter that area because it had not been deemed safe as of Monday, Banks said.
“DuPont is taking steps to assure the area is safe to access. We will be evaluating that process, and when we determine it is safe for our team members to document the site we will enter. We don’t know how soon that will be,” Banks said.
In the meantime, the CSB has asked DuPont to preserve all equipment settings as close as possible to where they were at the time of the accident, the board statement said.
The state environmental agency records show instances of unauthorized emissions, improper equipment use, non-compliance with liquid waste rules and some paperwork violations. But the records over the past five years also show DuPont at La Porte, where about 320 people work, was not a repeat violator and achieved a satisfactory rating.
The most significant fine was $91,000 for an emissions violation in 2012. The Delaware-based company reported $7.5 billion of quarterly sales last month.
Some people who live near the plant didn’t appear concerned Monday in the wake of the weekend’s news.
“I’d be lying if I’d say I’m concerned or think about it. I really don’t,” said Raymond Mejia, 50, who works at a plant he declined to identify. “It’s maybe because I’m accustomed to living in this area for 30-something years. … I’m so used to working around this area. It’s a way of life.”
Gene Bucsanyi, 67, a retired restaurant owner, said he occasionally thinks about possible incidents, “but what are you gonna do, move?”
“There is always something somewhere,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t explode.”
Olga Moya, a professor of environmental law at South Texas College of Law and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attorney, said it appeared the quantity of DuPont’s violations and any fines were “nominal” and “probably found at every facility.”
“It’s all relative,” she said of the more than 50 violations over five years. “If you call a local citizens’ group that lives nearby, it’s a lot because someone’s not paying attention to detail. And if that detail could cause injury or harm to people or the environment, it’s something they should be taking more seriously.
“Now what happened over the weekend was not nominal. It was substantial,” Moya said.
The investigation would come down to a determination of what failed, Moya said.
“Was it somebody opening a valve that wasn’t supposed to or was there too much pressure, or the age of equipment, or was it not properly calibrated or replaced?” she said.