Federal safety officials are investigating a DuPont chemical plant Monday after a series of leaks that resulted in the death of one worker and the operation’s temporary shutdown.
DuPont officials put the sprawling Belle plant in West Virginia on safety shutdown over the weekend after three leaks were reported. One leak, which released about 1,900 pounds of hazardous methyl chloride, went unnoticed for 5 days.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are both investigating.
On Saturday, a worker was taken to a Charleston hospital after being exposed to the chemical phosgene. Company officials confirmed Monday that 58-year-old Carl Fish, a 32-year DuPont employee, died on Sunday.
Phosgene is used to make plastics and pesticides, and can damage the respiratory system. The chemical was used as a weapon during World War I and caused the large majority of deaths from gas warfare in that conflict, the Centers for Disease Control said on its Web site.
Plant spokesman Roger Hess said Monday that officials decided to temporarily cease operations because “we had three incidents that happened in succession.”
On Friday, the company reported the methyl chloride leak to Kanawha County emergency officials. On Saturday, Fish was taken to the hospital after being exposed to phosgene residue in a transfer line.
Also on Saturday, the plant reported that less than 20 pounds of sulfuric acid had leaked from its spent acid recovery process.
Hess said the decision to cease production was made so workers and management could review operating and safety procedures. Production won’t resume until the review is complete.
“There is no time line,” he said.
OSHA’s Leni Fortson said agency investigators were at the sprawling eastern Kanawha County plant on Monday. The agency has six months to complete its investigation and release its findings, she said.
The chemical board said DuPont told its investigators that a braided steel hose connected to a one-ton capacity phosgene tank ruptured, exposing Fish to the chemical. The board noted that it is aware of six earlier leaks at the DuPont plant since December 2006.
The board works as an advisory body to plants, industry, labor and regulators including OSHA.
The plant, located on the Kanawha River about 12 miles east of Charleston, was developed after WWI to produce ammonia. It now produces a variety of products.
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