A chemical company and a former employee have been indicted for their roles in a 2014 poisonous gas leak that killed four workers at a Houston-area plant, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Four employees at the now-closed DuPont chemical plant in LaPorte, Texas, died in the release of methyl mercaptan -- a chemical used in the manufacture of insecticide and fungicide.
The chemical began leaking from a valve around 4 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2014, in a unit at the plant in La Porte, about 20 miles east of Houston. Killed in the accident were Crystle Wise, Wade Baker and brothers Robert and Gilbert Tisnado. A fifth worker was injured.
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A federal indictment issued earlier this month and made public Tuesday accuses DuPont and Kenneth Sandel of knowingly failing to implement certain company safety procedures required by federal regulations.
Sandel, 49, ran the unit at the plant where the employees who died worked and was responsible for ensuring unit workers followed applicable federal safety regulations, according to U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick.
In a statement, Corteva, a spinoff that took over DuPont's agriculture division, said the company "will never forget the colleagues we lost and will continue to honor their memory."
"We strongly disagree with the basis of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas' decision to bring criminal charges and will contest the charges vigorously," said Wilmington, Delaware-based Corteva.
In a statement, Amy Craig and Miles Ehrlich, Sandel's attorneys, said their client "did not cause this accident and he did nothing wrong. Charging him with a crime compounds the tragedy of this case. Ken Sandel is absolutely innocent and we are confident a jury will agree."
During a hearing before a federal magistrate judge Tuesday morning, the company and Sandel pleaded not guilty to the charges. Jury selection in the case was set for March 29.
According to prosecutors and the indictment, Sandel and DuPont engineers allegedly devised a plan to divert a large volume of methyl mercaptan gas into a waste gas pipe system during the day before and night of the fatal incident. However, Sandel failed to implement necessary procedures to evaluate safety aspects of that plan, according to prosecutors.
The unit where the workers died did not having adequate ventilation or air monitoring to ensure employee safety, and procedures weren't followed that would have restricted worker access into areas where ventilation fans weren't working, according to an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
In its final report on the deadly gas leak, the safety board concluded that various safety management system deficiencies, including problems with troubleshooting operations, safe work practices, toxic gas detection and emergency response, contributed to the severity of the incident.
In 2016, DuPont permanently shut down the insecticide production unit where the workers died.
Sandel and DuPont were each indicted on two counts of knowing violation of requirement to prevent accidental releases and one count of negligent release of extremely hazardous substance.
If convicted, Sandel faces up to six years in federal prison, while DuPont faces potential fines of $500,000 or twice the gross gain derived from the offense, whichever amount is larger.