The West Virginia Democrat’s office on Friday released portions of a Feb. 2 letter Byrd wrote to Kullman.
“As information of the accident becomes available, it suggests that the accident was not a regrettable, but temporary lapse in safety, but in fact suggests that there are fundamental and systematic deficiencies in the safety procedures at the Belle facility,” Byrd wrote in the letter.
Various federal agencies, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have launched investigations at the Belle plant following a series of accidents that also included a leak of toxic and flammable methyl chloride that went undetected by plant officials for nearly a week.
In the worst of the incidents, 32-year-plant veteran Carl “Danny” Fish was sprayed with phosgene, a chemical building block that was used as a poison gas during the First World War. Fish died the following day.
“As it has been reported, this was not an isolated leak of the chemical phosgene, but one of multiple leaks over a period of several days,” Byrd wrote in his letter to DuPont.
“I am advised that phosgene was used as a chemical agent during World War I for its highly toxic nature,” Byrd wrote. “As I understand it, the other chemicals that were leaked, methyl chloride and sulfuric acid, are similar in terms o their toxicity and potential danger to life.”
Byrd added, “Because multiple chemical processes were compromised, several sections of the plant were contaminated, thus endangering all workers in all contaminated areas. What I found particularly alarming was that the leak of methyl chloride went undetected for more than five days.”
DuPont reported the methyl chloride leak on Jan. 22, the same day it was discovered. The following day, a Saturday, DuPont launched its own “safety pause” in which workers were going over the plant and shutting down units that had any problems.
The safety pause began after a sulfuric acid leak that Saturday morning. That afternoon, after the project started, the leak that killed Fish occurred.
Chemical Safety Board investigators have said the phosgene hose involved in that leak appeared worn and frayed. The flexible, steel-mesh hose was used to transfer phosgene from one-ton containers to a manufacturing unit.
In his letter to DuPont, Byrd expressed concern that the Belle plant does not have a dedicated phone line to the Metro 911 center for use in such emergencies.
“I was stunned to find that a company of such size and stature had not employed one of the most basic standards for communicating with its community,” Byrd wrote.
“The facility’s lack of a rudimentary emergency response system no doubt contributed to the inability of the Kanawha County Metro Emergency Operations Center to maintain prompt, sufficient contact with the facility, or to ascertain quickly the chemical involved,” Byrd wrote. “This was a most unnecessary delay, and could have resulted in consequences far worse.”
Byrd concluded, “Many in the Kanawha Valley work in the chemical industry, and the area has a long history in producing the agricultural, industrial, and defense technologies utilized throughout this country and the rest of the world.
“They deserve the benefit of living and working in safety, and nothing less.”
Belle plant officials have said they will not comment further on the incidents because they are under investigation.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.