Amid talk of EPA rollback, Texas chemical leak kills 4


There’s been a lot of news on the environmental front this week, most of it concerning the intersection between our fragile ecology and our broken politics. Word that the Republican Party re-took control of the U.S. Senate and amped up its big majority in the House of Representatives has also led to increased speculation that the GOP’s No. 1 priority will be a crusade against environmental protections. On every issue from the Keystone XL pipeline to the so-called “war on coal” (actually, common sense regulations to curb greenhouse gases) to protecting our rivers and streams, Republicans believe that federal agencies like the EPA exist for only one reason — to crush what otherwise would be mighty American job growth.

In these critical months, however, it’s important to remember the human cost of rolling back environmental protections, and to ask whether these changes are really worth it. Environmental benefits can sometimes seem a little abstract — especially when it comes to global warming — but they were anything but abstract this weekend near Houston, Texas. It was there that a chemical leak at a troubled plant cost four workers their lives. The details of what happened are truly heartbreaking:

Tragedy struck twice for one Texas family after two brothers died Saturday during a chemical leak inside the DuPont Chemical Refinery outside Houston.

Gilbert Tisnado rushed into the contaminated area with a gas mask to try and save little brother Robert Tisnado, but both were killed after inhaling methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to make insecticides for crops.

“My son called me and said, ‘Dad, there has been an accident at the plant and Gibby and Bobby are involved,'” Gilbert Tisnado, the brother’s father, told KPRC-TV. “My heart stopped beating.”

Four people total were killed, while a fifth was hospitalized after a valve failed on a container of the deadly chemical around 4 a.m. Saturday.

Equally disturbing, however, is that there were multiple warnings of trouble at the plant. Indeed, a number of regulatory agencies were on the case, because the safety track record at the DuPont facility was abysmal. How abysmal?

DuPont’s La Porte plant, in the 11600 block of Strang Road, has a checkered history with chemical and effluent emissions violations.

Over the past five years, the facility has received dozens of citations and been ordered six times to pay fines by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, with a seventh penalty pending. The biggest penalty came in November 2012, when the state levied a $91,125 fine for emissions after two reviews showed a failure to limit residual chlorine, methomyl and other effluents. DuPont paid about 40 percent of the fine and made a similarly sized contribution to a pollution prevention project that restored a shoreline in Galveston Bay. TCEQ considers the facility’s compliance to be “satisfactory.”

The DuPont facility also has run afoul of federal regulators. This April, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the plant to limit its excessive discharges, and in 2007 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also assessed a small fine for the unsafe handling of hazardous chemicals.

The plant also recently has violated the Clean Water Act twice. In August, the facility was fined $26,000, two years after it had been assessed a $91,000 penalty for crossing the same law.

When you read about something like this, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the problem in America is not too much regulation, but rather too little — or at least not enough follow-through when serious violations are uncovered. I’ve spent 25 years of my life as a lawyer doing battle with Big Oil and with chemical companies, and I’ve seen that there’s no corner they won’t cut to squeeze a few more dollars of profit. The only way to make them do good is to make it too expensive to be bad. The tragic loss of the Tisnado brothers is another cautionary tale, if the GOP is serious about rolling back four decades of environmental protection in this country.

Read more about the Houston chemical leak from the New York Daily News:

Check out the Houston Chronicle report on the checkered safety history of the DuPont facility:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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