Honeywell Geismar’s Carville facility, where a worker was killed earlier this month, has seen 11 accidental releases of toxic or flammable chemicals in the past three years, state regulatory records said.
All leaks since autumn 2018 concerned pieces of equipment that had failed or were in some way not set up correctly: cracks and hole openings, poor seals, poorly processed flanges, missing plugs, prematurely triggered pressure relief valves and other failures, according to the State Office for Environmental Quality.
The last of these apparent mishaps resulted in the death of Jason DeRousselle, 51, of Prairieville, October 21, when a valve seal failed and strong hydrofluoric acid leaked, according to an initial DEQ report.
DeRousselle’s death was one of two deaths that month in the Ascension Parish chemical corridor outside La 30. Dexter Armstead, 48, also from Prairieville, died the day after suspected nitrogen pollution at BASF on October 15, State Troopers said.
Despite the early details a DEQ field inspector offered on DeRousselle’s death at Honeywell, investigators did not say what led to the apparent nitrogen release at BASF or how the inert gas killed Armstead, a Zachary Group contract worker.
State police, DEQ and federal occupational safety investigators say they are investigating these two incidents and one more at BASF on October 21. In their investigations, the authorities can take into account a company’s environmental balance sheet in the past.
DEQ officials, for example, said they view each of the recent incidents as new events.
“If there is a referral to (DEQ) enforcement (officials), previous compliance will be taken into account in any measures they enact,” said DEQ spokesman Greg Langley.
BASF officials announced Friday that another Zachary Group employee was hospitalized with respiratory problems on October 21 after an independent release of tolylene diisocyanate occurred.
Honeywell and Zachary Group officials have said they mourn their own loss and are always focused on safety.
“Our primary concern is the safety of our employees and we are continuing to work with the appropriate authorities to thoroughly investigate the incident,” said Mike Hockey, Honeywell spokesman.
The previous leaks at Honeywell prior to October 21st did not result in injuries. Most, but not all, were too small – a few tens of pounds or even less – to require reporting to state regulators, exceeding permit limits, and demanding significant emergency action or full public notification, reports show.
Honeywell reported these minor incidents to DEQ and other government watchdogs anyway, as part of its normal chemical industry practice of issuing “courtesy reports.”
But just over half of these incidents occurred at Honeywell’s fluorocarbon manufacturing facilities in the large complex off La. 3115, which is also where the leak appeared, which apparently killed DeRousselle, as an analysis of the DEQ reports shows.
Honeywell manufactures refrigerants in this part of its operations, including a new version that is said to have less impact on global warming.
A little more than half of the incidents also included unexpected leaks of hydrofluoric acid or hydrogen fluoride, which the CDC says is the same chemical “for all practical purposes”. Hydrofluoric acid is a colorless liquid that is a mixture of hydrogen fluoride and water.
And an incident large enough to cause DEQ to take enforcement action against Honeywell, a 652 pound hydrogen fluoride leak in August 2019, occurred in the same unit within Honeywell’s fluorocarbon manufacturing area where State Troopers said more than more than was exposed two years later.
The unit is making an older version of refrigerant that will leak.
DEQ believes that a leak in 2019, which occurred when a flange came off a pipe and released hydrogen fluoride, was preventable. The equipment was missing plugs and other auxiliary equipment that could have prevented the flange from separating, the agency reported.
Langley said Friday that enforcement actions are still pending.
The Mississippi River Corridor at Ascension has seen its share of incidents, including an explosion at the former Williams Olefins plant in Geismar in June 2013 that killed two people and injured more than 100 people.
But chemical industry officials in Louisiana and nationally, despite the rare and tragic loss of life, have drawn attention to its overall safety record and improved practices over the years due to regulatory and internal oversight.
Like other large plants, Honeywell is required to provide DEQ with regular leak detection reports. According to DEQ records, the company’s employees have regularly checked thousands of pieces of equipment over the past three years and made repairs on time.
However, Faisal Khan, a chemical industry safety professor at Texas A&M University, said of the industry in general that his long-standing concern is that too often “leading indicators that something is wrong” are not being looked at but rather reactions are being looked at occur in hindsight.
In part because of the way the regulations are structured, Khan said that too often the lessons of these smaller incidents, which can be incidents to larger ones, are not learned in time, even though most are predictable.
âIn summary, we tend to work in reactive mode rather than learning from the precursors and trying to prevent this from happening. That was my biggest concern, âsaid Khan, who heads Texas A & M’s MKO Process Safety Center.
Still, he compared the safety of industrial plants to the level of safety of driving a car – although it is not risk-free, the risk it poses can be brought to an acceptable level.
Khan declined to comment directly on the Honeywell Geismar incidents on Friday.
If inhaled in high enough concentrations, hydrofluoric acid can cause breathing difficulties, including fluid in the lungs, and can cause severe burns on contact with skin.
Local authorities have not disclosed how much hydrofluoric acid leaked from the broken valve at Honeywell, which killed DeRousselle, or whether DeRousselle was exposed to a liquid or gas.
Hydrofluoric acid releases gaseous fumes when it contains more than 40% hydrogen fluoride, says the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.