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DuPont agrees to $1.3M in chemical leak fines

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

DuPont Co. has agreed to pay nearly $1.3 million in fines to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve violations the EPA cited after a string of 2010 chemical leaks, including one that killed a worker at the company’s plant in Belle, EPA officials announced Wednesday.

The proposed deal, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, settles EPA allegations that DuPont violated provisions of federal air pollution, chemical management, and public right-to-know laws and requires the Wilmington, Delaware-based chemical giant to implement a variety of environmental and workplace safety reforms.

Among other things, EPA officials alleged that DuPont officials allowed one leak to go on for five days without taking action, ignored internal safety recommendations that could have prevented a second incident, and did not timely replace a worn-out hose used to transfer toxic phosgene gas in a fatal January 2010 incident.

“Failing to follow laws meant to prevent accidents can have fatal consequences — as was tragically the case here,” said Sam Hirsch, acting assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

The EPA launched an investigation at DuPont’s Belle plant in Eastern Kanawha County after a series of incidents on Jan. 22-23, 2010, that included a leak of toxic and flammable methyl chloride that went undetected by plant officials for nearly a week. In the worst of the incidents, on Jan. 23, a 32-year plant veteran, Danny Fish, was sprayed with phosgene, a chemical building block that was used as a poison gas during World War I. Fish died the following day.

Federal environmental officials had previously cited DuPont, saying the company had not identified potential hazards, failed to design and maintain a safe facility and did not minimize the potential consequences of accidents that do occur.

In a final report issued in September 2011, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that the leaks at DuPont were preventable incidents caused by deficiencies in plant safety management systems related to maintenance and inspections, alarm recognition and management, accident investigations, emergency response and communications, and hazard recognition, the EPA noted in a new lawsuit that’s being resolved by the deal announced Wednesday.

Among other things, the board’s report noted the CSB’s previous recommendation that West Virginia officials work with Kanawha County to develop a local chemical-accident-prevention program. As part of legislation responding to this year’s chemical leak at Freedom Industries, lawmakers mandated that a new state Public Water System Supply Commission examine the CSB’s recommendation. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has yet to appoint members of that commission.

Maya Nye, spokeswoman for People Concerned About Chemical Safety, said her group is working on a “roadmap” that state and local leaders could use to implement the board recommendation.

“The DuPont tragedy illustrates the need to implement a Chemical Release Prevention Plan that was recommended by the Chemical Safety Board,” Nye said Wednesday. “As the Public Water System Supply Study Commission reviews the recommendations, they will have a sound roadmap to help them parse out the details.”

In its news release Wednesday, the EPA said that, in addition to violations related to the January 2010 incidents, federal officials identified five other incidenta in which DuPont did not report chemical releases to the National Response Center, state emergency officials or local responders. The largest of these was the release of 80 tons of methanol into the Kanawha River on Sept. 21, 2010.

As part of the settlement with the EPA, DuPont will implement “enhanced risk management operating procedures” to improve its response to alarms triggered by the release of hazardous substances. DuPont also will improve its procedures to ensure government officials are notified of chemical releases, and will conduct new training exercises to prepare employees for making such notifications, the EPA said.

The EPA said DuPont estimates that it will spend nearly $2.3 million on improvements required by the settlement. DuPont estimates that it previously spent about $6.8 million to comply with an earlier EPA enforcement order regarding the January 2010 incidents.

“We remain committed to meeting all regulatory requirements and operating at the highest standards for protection of our employees, contractors, community and the environment,” said DuPont spokesman Dan Turner. “We acknowledge and deeply regret the loss of our employee, Danny Fish, who was a much-loved father, husband, co-worker, friend and community member.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.


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