DuPont company and former employee sentenced in deadly 2014 chemical release

LA PORTE, Texas – DuPont has pleaded guilty and has been sentenced for criminal negligence in connection with a 2014 incident that killed four company employees, according to the United States Attorney’s Office Southern District of Texas.

On Nov. 15, 2014, DuPont accidentally released 24,000 pounds of deadly methyl mercaptan, a highly toxic and flammable gas, into the air. The incident killed four employees and injured others.

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.

Kenneth Sandel, 52, of Friendswood, was the unit operation leader of the Insecticide Business Unit, where the accident occurred. Sandel pleaded guilty to criminal negligence, individually. He was sentenced to one year of probation.

As the IBU leader, records show 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 into the environment.

Records show Sandel and other employees failed to provide sufficient instructions to the oncoming shift on how to safely clear the 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.

The company also pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $12 million. In total, DuPont will pay $19.26 million for its unlawful conduct. The total includes $12 million in fines and $4 million in Fish & Wildlife Foundation donations, which will be used to benefit air quality near Galveston Bay, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The company must also serve two years of probation, during which time, it must give the U.S. Probation Office full access to all of its operating locations.

“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.”

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.

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.