DuPont and former employee sentenced for gas release that killed four
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Texas
Company to pay $12M fine and donate additional $4M to Fish & Wildlife Foundation
HOUSTON – E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company Inc. (DuPont) pleaded guilty and has been sentenced for criminal negligence in connection with a 2014 accident that left four company employees dead, announced U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani.
On Nov. 15, 2014, DuPont released approximately 24,000 pounds of a highly toxic, flammable gas called methyl mercaptan (MeSH) into the air. In addition to killing the four, the chemical release injured other DuPont employees and travelled downwind into the surrounding areas.
The company pleaded guilty today along with Kenneth Sandel, 52, Friendswood, unit operations leader of the Insecticide Business Unit (IBU) where the accident occurred.
U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered DuPont to pay a $12 million penalty. The company must also serve two years of probation during which time the company must give the U.S. Probation Office full access to all of its operating locations. Judge Rosenthal also ordered Sandel to serve one year of probation. At the hearing, the court asked DuPont’s corporate representative whether the company had to publicly disclose their conviction, noting the importance of that fact.
They will also make a $4 million community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to address the harm they caused by funding projects that benefit air quality in and around areas adjacent to the western shores of Galveston Bay.
As a result of this case and other related civil cases tied to the explosion, DuPont will have paid a total of $19.26 million for its unlawful conduct.
“Four employees are dead because of DuPont’s criminal negligence,” said Hamdani. “The sentence imposed today sends a clear message of my office’s dedication to holding managers at industrial facilities, and the corporations that own and operate those facilities, accountable for violations of federal criminal laws; laws meant to protect the safety of workers and nearby communities.”
“The failure to follow required chemical safety procedures at Dupont’s La Porte facility resulted in the deaths of four employees,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This case demonstrates the importance of holding chemical facilities accountable for implementing chemical safety requirements that are designed to protect workers and neighboring communities.”
DuPont is headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, and owns chemical manufacturing plants around the world including a facility in La Porte. As part of its operations, the facility produces pesticides called Lannate and Vydate among other products.
The release of the MeSH on Nov. 15, 2014, resulted in the introduction of the pesticides into the air which travelled downwind into the city of Deer Park and beyond. In addition to killing the four employees, several others were injured.
The fatal accident occurred after an employee inadvertently left open a piping valve which caused a slushy material to block the flow of liquid MeSH into the Lannate process. To melt it, DuPont day shift employees began applying hot water to the outside of the blocked piping and opened other valves to vent MeSH gas into a waste gas system. However, the MeSH piping was still blocked at the end of the day.
As the IBU leader, Sandel was responsible for ensuring shift supervisors, operators and engineers understood and complied with government safety, health and environmental regulations. Specifically, Sandel was responsible for implementing a safety procedure at the IBU by making sure employees understood and followed the procedure’s requirements and did not release toxic chemicals inappropriately to the environment.
Sandel and other employees failed to provide sufficient instructions to the oncoming shift for how to safely clear remaining blockage. It finally cleared early the next morning, and a large volume of liquid MeSH began flowing into the waste gas system. At that time, an employee mistakenly believed the waste gas system only contained materials present during normal operations and opened valves that resulted in the release of the toxic gas.
Records indicate employees at DuPont’s LaPorte plant disregarded a federally mandated safety procedure when opening those valves on the waste system. Sandel should have known operators did not have a safe and effective way to drain the vent system and should have prevented it from happening.
As part of the pleas, DuPont and Sandel admitted to negligently releasing an extremely hazardous substance into the ambient air. The company also acknowledged negligently placing a person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.
The IBU has since been demolished.
The charges against DuPont and Sandel are part of an EPA initiative titled Reducing Risks of Accidental Releases at Industrial and Chemical Facilities. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in Texas conducted the investigation with assistance from the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSA) John R. Lewis and Belinda Beek and Special AUSA Kristina Gonzales are prosecuting the case with assistance from the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Updated April 24, 2023