Photo: The LyondellBasell plant in La Porte
By Blaine Hopkins
On July 27, two workers died and 30 more were sent to the hospital after a chemical leak at LyondellBasell’s La Porte plant, just outside of Houston, Texas. The incident comes weeks after another chemical accident at a LyondellBasell facility, revealing a pattern of the company’s murderous negligence that puts workers’ lives at risk for the sake of profit.
In the recent incident, a pressurized chemical line burst, leaking 100,000 pounds of an acetic acid mixture. Acetic acid is often used as a food preservative, but in its concentrated form the chemical causes severe burns and is toxic if inhaled.
Two contract workers died during the chemical leak: Dusty Day, 36, from Oklahoma and Shawn Kuhleman, 32, from Arlington, Texas—both died on site. Most of the 30 people hospitalized were treated for respiratory issues.
Lawsuits filed by workers on site claim many are still throwing up and having nose bleeds days after the leak. Many had to run for their lives to get to breathable air. One lawsuit also claims LyondellBasell knew about the leak but did nothing to fix it.
LyondellBasell is a Dutch-based multinational chemical company with its US headquarters in Houston. The company is the third largest chemical manufacturer in the United States, and last quarter had a total revenue of $11.56 billion. LyondellBasell’s La Porte complex has approximately 675 employees and contractors and is the third largest producer of glacial acetic acid in the world.
Refinery and plant workers face dangers of chemical exposure, fires, and explosions every day as fact of the exploitation and negligence of the industrial monopolies, who see these so-called accidents and casualties as an acceptable part of doing business. Tribune spoke with a scaffolder at the Chevron Pasadena Refinery who stated these accidents happen frequently because companies “treat us like dogs.” The worker said he had put in over 70 hours just that week.
The scaffolder also described how this past week, one of his coworkers became sick from chemical fumes and was sent home. While he was still recovering, they believe he was fired to avoid paying out any health benefits.
The chemical hazards are common for those who work and live along Houston’s ship channel. A few weeks ago, residents of Galena Park, a small town near LyondellBasell’s Houston refinery, experienced headaches and nausea from a garlic-like, chemical smell. Only after being visited by county investigators did the company confess to a chemical tank roof collapse as the source of the smell.
Only a week later on July 21, a tanker truck at Dow Chemical’s Bayport plant, also in La Porte, began venting excess hydroxyethyl acrylate and risked exploding. La Porte officials issued a half mile evacuation radius around the plant which included a nearby neighborhood.
LyondellBasell and local officials did not report any risk to the public regarding the most recent deadly acetic acid leak, but residents just across the highway remain skeptical and angry. One man said that “this place will be the next Texas City,” in reference to the 2005 British Petroleum (BP) Texas City refinery disaster which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others including workers and nearby residents.
Tribune also spoke with a young mother who remains in the area because of her family’s longtime roots in the neighborhood. She criticized both the city of La Porte and LyondellBasell for not communicating with her and other nearby families about the incident, “It was 10 o’clock at night and I’m watching the news. I call my husband over…and that’s how we learned that there was an accident.”
She said no sirens or alerts went off for people in the area to know what happened. “My baby was crying that evening. How am I supposed to know if maybe the chemicals had something to do with it?” She expressed her frustration that ultimately the city could only do so much, since only the company fully knows what chemicals it is releasing into the air and the government offers little oversight.
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