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Friday, July 10, 2015

Southeast Texas family questions safety at petrochemical plant after death of daughter


Betty LeBlanc and her husband Adam share memories of their only child while turning the pages of a photo album.

"Did she feel safe? She really was getting used to the environment," says Betty LeBlanc.
In March of last year Crystle Wise began working as an operator at the DuPont plant in La Porte. Wise began telling her parents about strong odors inside her unit two months before she died.

"She did have to leave a control room one time because she said it was just too bad and her co-worker followed her," says LeBlanc.

Wise died in 2014. A massive leak of gases inside the pesticide unit killed her and three co-workers.
"She may have made it down if that ventilator would have been working," says Adam LeBlanc, the father of Crystle Wise.

Attorney Brent Coon represents the family in a civil lawsuit against DuPont. He says the lack of proper ventilation wasn't the only problem.

"People were working without required respiratory protection and the people didn't even have emergency packs there on standby in the event something did happened they could very quickly grab the mask and get some protection," says Coon.

A series of what Coon calls failures amounting to negligence. The attorney says he's seen the same thing before in the 2005 Texas City BP Explosion that killed 15 workers.

"Every single refinery and every single chemical that I've ever had any dealings with in over thirty years it's almost all of them. Every single one of them have major safety gaps in their operation," says Coon.

Coon feels strongly that companies need to do a better job of maintaining their equipment.

"What we've seen in the industry now is that the normal one or two year turn around now is sometimes never or even if it's scheduled it's scheduled at four or five years instead of one or two years and when the four or five years comes it very often is pushed off even further," says Coon.

A retired petrochemical plant worker Tom Montalbano believes that facilities are generally safe. However, he says concerns about equipment safety did play a role in union members going on strike earlier this year at several plants.

"The standards for design and for performance have changed and so some of this old equipment no longer meets it that's why equipment gets grandfathered under the law," says Montalbano.

Montalbano says the equipment does meet legal standards but Coon believes more should be done. He argues companies aren't being pushed enough to answer tough questions.

"OSHA in recognition of that gap they're under funded they don't have anybody that can go out and inspect these plants with any degree of scrutiny so what we do instead is we allow the plants to self-regulate it's called the VPP program," says Coon.

Coon is referring to a voluntary program allowing companies to report leaks and other incidents.

"There's never any criminal accountability to management in these industries when they deliberately made decisions that put their workforce at risk and caused their workers to die and they never go to jail for it even in Texas City," says Coon.

Betty LeBlanc hopes DuPont and other companies use what happened as an opportunity for change.

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