Jurors watched dozens of external and internal videos of what whistleblower Jeffrey M. Simoneaux testified Tuesday was toxic sulfur trioxide gas emitting from DuPont’s Burnside acid plant in, at times, widespread white clouds.
The leaks occurred a few days in late October after DuPont had conducted a turnaround and just restarted the facility along the Mississippi River in Ascension Parish.
Simoneaux, a former senior operator at the plant for 22 years who left the company in August 2012, has sued DuPont under the False Claims Act, claiming the company hid the leaks to avoid paying fines to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and retaliated against him when he tried to report them.
Simoneaux testified in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge that he videotaped gas clouds with a camera on two nights in late October 2013 as sulfur trioxide gas wafted from DuPont onto a neighboring plant. Pieces of that plant, once known as Ormet Corp., are owned by Impala Warehousing or Almatis.
“That’s a lot of gas,” Simoneaux said as plaintiff’s attorney Jane Barney displayed a video of a slow-moving cloud of gas that, along with a night sky partially illuminated by the DuPont plant’s lights, created a backdrop to the River Road facility.
Jurors also saw DuPont videos from two cameras atop a smokestack that were taken around the same time Simoneaux took his videos outside the plant.
The videos show what Simoneaux alleged were leaks from plant equipment. Videos also show contract and DuPont workers without protective breathing equipment as they removed insulation a few days after Simoneaux had first videotaped the gas and called 911.
Simoneaux said the gas in the video he took from late October 2013 was one of the largest leaks he had ever seen. He said larger leaks previously occurred, but the plant instituted an emergency shutdown.
“We just hit the button and shut it down,” he said.
But he testified his former co-workers later were scared to shut the facility down.
Simoneaux spent all Tuesday on the stand, but defense attorneys only briefly started their cross-examination.
Defense attorney Monique Weiner did bring out that one of Simoneaux’s longtime co-workers had been fired in early January 2012, weeks before Simoneaux began making complaints about the leaking gas.
Simoneaux, who graduated from the University of New Orleans with a business degree, acknowledged he has no degree in chemical engineering or formal training as an industrial environmental coordinator. He also acknowledged that his former job at the plant did not involve directly working on mitigating the leaks.
Simoneaux claimed he knew the leaks were sulfur trioxide, which is a carcinogen, based the gas’s color and behavior and on his knowledge of plant processes where the leaks occurred.
During a line of questioning over Simoneaux’s attempts to report the leaks internally, Weiner asked him if he had reported them to the EPA.
Plaintiff’s attorney Barney objected on “an investigatory privilege” on behalf of the U.S. government.
That brought an end to the trial Tuesday. Judge Shelly D. Dick has called someone from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to a closed hearing 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Earlier on Tuesday, Simoneaux also recounted how plant manager Tom Miller became angry because Simoneaux had reported a Feb. 1, 2012, leak by email, thereby creating a legal record.
Simoneaux was directed to fill out internal “first reports” instead. Plaintiffs’ attorneys had him go through a series of hand-written first reports he made between February and May 2012 and then the typewritten versions his supervisors did for purportedly the same incidents.
Simoneaux testified the typewritten reports, which are what were entered into DuPont’s computerized reporting system, downplayed or ignored the leaks and often left out that Simoneaux claimed the gas left the plant site.
Plaintiffs’ attorney also played a secret recording Simoneaux made in early May 2012 of Miller’s warning him and other co-workers about making calls about the leaks to outside agencies.
Miller told the workers they would be “nuts” to think calling the agencies about the leaks would work out well and warned it could lead to DuPont shutting down the plant as unsafe.
He warned the workers that if they were making the calls or knew people who were, they should quit.
“We don’t need that kind of help,” Miller was recorded as saying.