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Chemical plants along the Mississippi River. 

The Honeywell Geismar plant in Carville where a worker was killed earlier this month has had 11 accidental releases of toxic or flammable chemicals in the past three years, state regulatory records say.

All of the leaks since fall 2018 have involved pieces of equipment that failed or weren't properly set up in some way: cracks and pinhole openings, bad gaskets, poorly manufactured flanges, missing plugs, prematurely firing relief valves and other breakdowns, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The latest of those apparent breakdowns led to the death of Jason DeRousselle, 51, of Prairieville, on Oct. 21 when a valve gasket failed and potent hydrofluoric acid leaked out, according to an initial DEQ report.

DeRousselle's death was one of two this month in Ascension Parish's chemical corridor off La. 30. Dexter Armstead, 48, also of Prairieville, died a day after suspected nitrogen exposure at BASF on Oct. 15, state troopers have said. 

Despite the early details a DEQ field inspector offered in DeRousselle's death at Honeywell, investigators haven't said what led to the apparent nitrogen release at BASF or how the inert gas killed Armstead, a contract worker for the Zachary Group. 

State Police, DEQ and federal workplace safety investigators say they are probing those two incidents and another at BASF on Oct. 21. The agencies can consider a company's past environmental track records in its investigations.

DEQ officials, for instance, said they are considering each of the latest incidents as new events.

"If there is a referral to (DEQ) enforcement (officials), past compliance will be factored in any action they issue," DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said.

BASF officials announced Friday that another Zachary Group worker taken to the hospital with respiratory problems on Oct. 21 after an unrelated release of toluene diisocyanate ended up having a medical problem unrelated to any chemical exposure.

Honeywell and Zachary Group officials have said they are mourning the loss of their own and that their focus always remains on safety.

"Our primary concern is the safety of our employees, and we continue to work with the appropriate authorities to conduct a thorough review of the incident," said Mike Hockey, Honeywell spokesman.

The prior leaks at Honeywell before Oct. 21 did not lead to injuries. Most, but not all, also were too small — a few dozen pounds or even far less — to require reporting to state regulators, to exceed permit limits and to call for significant emergency responses or widespread public notification, reports show.

Honeywell reported those lesser incidents to DEQ and other state watchdogs anyway under a common chemical industry practice of issuing "courtesy" reports.

But slightly more than half of those incidents arose among Honeywell's fluorocarbon manufacturing units in the large complex off La. 3115, where the leak that apparently killed DeRousselle also occurred, an analysis of the DEQ reports shows.

Honeywell makes refrigerants in that part of its operations, including a new version that is supposed to have less impact on global warming.

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Also, slightly more than half of the incidents also involved unanticipated leaks of the hydrofluoric acid or hydrogen fluoride, which the CDC says are the same chemical "for all practical purposes." Hydrofluoric acid is a colorless liquid that is a mixture of hydrogen fluoride and water.

And an incident that was big enough to prompt DEQ to pursue enforcement action against Honeywell, an August 2019 leak of 652 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, happened in the same unit inside Honeywell's fluorocarbon manufacturing area where state troopers say DeRousselle was exposed more than two years later. 

The unit makes an older version of refrigerant that is being phased out.

DEQ has deemed that 2019 leak, which happened when a flange separated from a pipe and released hydrogen fluoride, was preventable. The equipment was missing plugs and other support equipment that could have kept the flange from separating, the agency reported.

Langley said Friday that the enforcement action is still pending.

The Mississippi River corridor in Ascension has seen its share of incidents, including a June 2013 explosion at the former Williams Olefins plant in Geismar that killed two and injured more than 100 people.

But representatives of the chemical industry in Louisiana and nationally have pointed to their overall safety record and improving practices over the years due to regulatory and internal oversight, despite the rare and tragic loss of life.

Like other major plants, Honeywell is required to submit regular leak detection reports to DEQ. During the past three years, the company says its workers have made regular checks of thousands of pieces of equipment and made repairs in a timely fashion, DEQ records show.

But, speaking generally about industry, Faisal Khan, a chemical industry safety professor at Texas A&M University, said his longstanding concern is that too often attention is not paid to the "early indicators that something is not happening right" but reactions happen after the fact.

Due in part to the way regulations are structured, Khan said, too often the lessons from those smaller incidents that can be precursors to major ones are not learned in time, even though most are predictable.

"In summary, we tend to operate in the reactive mode rather than learning from the precursors and trying to prevent it. This has been my greatest concern," said Khan, who leads Texas A&M's MKO Process Safety Center.

Still, he compared the safety of industrial facilities to the safety levels associated with driving a car — while not risk free, the risk it poses can be brought to acceptable levels. 

Khan declined to comment directly Friday on the incidents at Honeywell Geismar.

Local authorities have not said how much hydrofluoric acid escaped from the failed valve at Honeywell that killed DeRousselle or if DeRousselle was exposed to a liquid or a gas.

Hydrofluoric acid releases gaseous fumes if it contains more than 40% hydrogen fluoride, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says

Hydrofluoric acid can cause breathing problems, including fluid in the lungs, if inhaled in high enough concentrations and can cause severe burns if it touches the skin.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.