Photo by Marie D. De Jesus/MBI
By Adrian Shelley, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
On November 15, tragedy struck the community of La Porte, TX. A leak of methyl mercaptan at the DuPont chemical plant killed four workers and injured a fifth. Methyl mercaptan, which is used in the manufacture of insecticides and fungicides, is highly toxic.
The leak began in the early morning hours Saturday, in an enclosed facility at the plant. An employee checking on a line was overcome by a toxic cloud produced by the leak, as were three more who ran to help. It took several hours to contain the leak and confirm the four deaths.
Methyl mercaptan, which has a strong odor of rotting cabbage, is used to give natural gas its smell. After the leak, a strong odor was reported as far as 40 miles away. Around 8:00 AM on Saturday, the City of Houston received approximately a dozen odor complaints in a cluster around State Highway 288. Investigators say that air quality testing indicated that community members around the DuPont plant were never in danger from the release. An investigation into the accident is ongoing, with local, state, and federal investigators working together.
Our thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their families. As we wait to learn more, we have a few thoughts about this tragedy.
- Houston is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the nation, including more than 400 chemical plants. Working with dangerous and deadly chemicals comes with serious risk. As we indicated in a statement by the Health Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), this tragedy reminds us of the necessity of taking every possible safety precaution to protect each plant’s employees and neighbors.
- It is vitally important that communities are notified as soon as possible when accidents occur. Today’s notification systems are inadequate and incomplete. A resident wanting information about Saturday’srelease would have had to call the CAER Line for information. (If you’ve never heard of the CAER Line, you’re not alone.) Conversations we have had suggest that a message was posted to the CAER Line early Saturday morning, but dropped quickly thereafter. This is unacceptable. For some time now, the HPCC has called for a more sophisticated “Reverse 911” system to protect fenceline communities. Such a system would use phone calls and text messages to notify residents, would include land lines and cell phones, and would be “opt out” rather than “opt in.”
- The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports that DuPont was in “satisfactory” compliance with environmental laws. The truth is the plant has been cited for violations more than two dozen times in the last five years. TCEQ hasn’t done a compliance history rating for the plant since 2008. More to the point: 80% of all facilities in Texas are rated “satisfactory” by the TCEQ. What more evidence do we need that the compliance history rating system doesn’t work?
- The DuPont facility has a long history of emissions events. Each event represents a violation of the law, and such a history is characteristic of large facilities in Texas. In 2011, Air Alliance Houston was part of a legislative effort that increased that maximum penalty for such violations from $10,000 a day to $25,000. But such penalties are rarely levied, and even a facility cited for violations as frequently as DuPont is unlikely to have ever been assessed a maximum penalty. The lack of meaningful enforcement of violations of the law is one symptom of the lax regulatory climate in Texas. We believe polluters should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
It is our sincere hope that tragedies like the one in La Porte never occur. Disease, injury, and death are not unavoidable, even in the nation’s largest petrochemical complex. Our companies, our communities, and our government must do everything possible to keep us safe and healthy.