CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was May 1988, and DuPont Co. engineers and managers were debating how to best build a facility where their company's Belle plant could turn the poison gas phosgene into valuable chemicals for products to protect crops.
One option was to buy phosgene in one-ton cylinders from an outside vendor. Cylinders would be hauled to Belle, and phosgene transferred by hose to the plant's reactor.
Another possibility was building a unit to make phosgene at Belle. That proposal called for totally enclosing areas where phosgene was made and used, so workers and plant neighbors wouldn't be exposed to potential leaks.
DuPont experts estimated the enclosed plant would cost an additional $2 million. But it would also be safer, saving an estimated 14 lives over 10,000 years, according to a theoretical project put together by DuPont.
DuPont -- a company that prides itself on its much-touted commitment to protecting the safety of workers, the environment and the communities where it operates -- rejected the safer option, citing concerns that it would set an unwanted standard for other decisions about handling dangerous chemicals.
"It may be that in the present circumstances, the business can afford $2 million for an enclosure," an unnamed DuPont official said in a May 19, 1988, internal memo. "However, in the long run, can we afford to take such action which has such a small impact on safety and yet sets a precedent for all highly toxic material activities."
Twenty-two years later, in January 2010, longtime Belle plant employee Danny Fish died after he was sprayed in the face by phosgene gas that leaked from a hose at the facility's phosgene unit.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators last week cited DuPont's decision to reject the phosgene enclosure as one factor among a long list of corporate lapses that led to Fish's death.
"They basically decided to take the risk of not building it, and hope for the best," said CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.
DuPont hasn't used phosgene at the Belle plant since Fish died, citing business instead of safety reasons for the decision. At a press conference in Charleston, Moure-Eraso urged the chemical giant not to resume using phosgene unless it builds a new enclosed facility. DuPont officials said they have no plans to start using phosgene again.
But in its 172-page report, the CSB details -- through previously confidential DuPont records and other evidence -- a long history of decisions in which DuPont ignored its own respected safety guidelines and delayed any action on internal recommendations for better handling of phosgene.
In one memo, dated April 29, 1988, a DuPont official criticized General Electric for spending $40 million on an enclosed phosgene facility for a plant near Mount Vernon, Ind.
DuPont believed the safety improvement from the enclosed facility at GE was so marginal that its costs, averaged out per life saved, were actually far more than the real cost of the project.
"If we accept the premise that we spend money on process hazards to save lives, prevent damage and avoid public outrage, and if we use the number of lives saved as a measure of these three contributions, then the $40 million GE spent to enclose their plant ... represents a spending rate of about $4 billion per life saved," the DuPont memo said. "Such a precedent is neither in the interests of GE, DuPont, the chemical industry, nor the public as a whole."
After its 1988 phosgene plant study, DuPont did begin construction of an on-site -- but open air, rather than enclosed -- phosgene generation facility at Belle. That project was abandoned for reasons that the CSB could not confirm, and the company instead bought phosgene from outside vendors, and processed it in a partially enclosed shed.