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January 28, 2010

DuPont Plant Investigation

Fatal Accident: Safety board begins probe of phosgene leak

Jeff Johnson

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The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) will investigate a deadly accident that occurred on Jan. 23 at the DuPont chemical complex in Belle, W.Va., located south of Charleston on the Kanawha River.

The board made the announcement on Jan. 25, the day after a 58-year-old worker died from exposure to phosgene, which leaked when a braided steel hose attached to a 1-ton-capacity tank ruptured. The plant can store up to 44,000 lb of phosgene on-site, according to company permit filings with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The deadly accident follows two others at the plant over a one-week period, according to CSB. One involved a release of chloromethane from the plant's unit for producing hexazinone, a broad-spectrum herbicide, that went undetected for several days, the board says. The other was a sulfur dioxide release from a spent sulfuric acid unit. CSB also notes that six other releases have occurred at the plant since December 2006.

In a statement, DuPont announced that it was temporarily shutting down several process units immediately for safety checks. "The purpose of the safety stand-down is to reinforce the seriousness of this situation and maintain the site's focus on safe work, consistent with DuPont's core values. The site is undergoing a thorough investigation of the units involved in the incidents," DuPont says.

CSB is currently two members shy of its full five-member complement, and speaking for the board, CSB member William E. Wright cautioned that the new investigation is likely to delay efforts to complete other investigations, including another fatal accident at a Bayer CropScience plant in nearby Institute, W.Va. (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 25).

Wright notes that with the new DuPont investigation, the board now has 17 open investigations, the largest number in its 11-year history.

The investigation was requested by local elected officials, such as those on the Kanawha County Commission, as well as both West Virginia Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D). The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration also says it intends to investigate the accident.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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