Since a chemical leak killed a worker in October 2021, the Honeywell plant in Geismar has seen 15 accident releases of chemicals, state regulatory records show — nine of them involving the deadly chemical that killed the employee.
Many of those leaks have been small. But a nighttime release this January was the largest uncontrolled release of dangerous hydrogen fluoride vapor from the plant in at least the past five years, the records show.
A new estimate from Honeywell says the roughly hour-long chemical release sent 871 pounds of hydrogen fluoride into the air, along with 1,684 pounds of caustic chlorine gas and pentafluoropropane and other fluorinated chemicals.
Hydrogen fluoride is the chemical that killed Jason Derousselle, of Prairieville, during a small leak in the fall of 2021, according to investigative reports.
Greg Langley, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the Jan. 23 hydrogen fluoride leak and the string of leaks preceding it in 2022 aren't expected to trigger a referral to the agency's enforcement division. He said the January incident didn't lead to off-site emissions, so the releases aren't part of DEQ's mission.
Langley referred questions to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA officials said they have conducted three inspections at Honeywell in Geismar since Jan. 1, 2020, and two of those visits have resulted in the issuance of violations, including a follow-up to the worker's death. One of those three inspections happened this year.
"OSHA does not investigate every accidental release of hazardous chemicals that may occur at the site, but would address reports received of incidents, alleged hazards, potential unsafe or unhealthful working condition where there is employee/potential of employee exposure," agency officials said in a statement.
Agency officials added that they sometimes don't become aware of potentially unsafe conditions until reported in the media, through other agency referrals, employee complaints, employer reporting, catastrophic incidents, or through other situations.
Mike Hockey, a Honeywell spokesman, said the company conducts "regular periodic inspections and repairs and is also regularly inspected by multiple agencies."
He added the plant has fence line monitors to act as a warning system and has its own leak detection and repair program "to identify and correct issues before they become a safety hazard." The programs must keep track of thousands of pieces of equipment.
"Honeywell always strives to operate the Geismar facility in a safe and environmentally protective manner, which includes minimizing the possibility of a release from the plant," Hockey said. "The wellbeing of our employees and neighbors is our first priority."
Though several releases at Honeywell involved small amounts of hydrogen fluoride or hydrofluoric acid, some chemical industry experts have noted that small incidents can serve as early warnings that should be heeded. And hydrogen fluoride and hydrofluoric acid are dangerous chemicals that, even in small amounts, can be deadly for workers and the public.
Hydrogen fluoride burns the skin, rapidly absorbs through the skin to damage the organs and, if inhaled, causes the lungs to fill with fluid, according to federal regulators.
No one was injured in the January release, but authorities did close highways in Ascension and Iberville parishes, and workers sheltered in place.
Honeywell has not yet explained to state regulators why the leak occurred, saying an analysis is still pending. Some reported hearing a pressure burst that sounded like an explosion.
At the time of the leak, Honeywell officials would not confirm hydrogen fluoride had been released, though state officials suggested it appeared to be what had escaped.
Honeywell in Geismar bills itself as the largest maker and user of hydrogen fluoride in the world and is one of a handful of companies in the United States that make it. Honeywell uses sulfuric acid to react with a mined rock known as fluorspar to make hydrogen fluoride.
Hydrogen fluoride is sold to other companies and also is used by Honeywell to make refrigerants, solvents, blowing agents and other products. But the process of creating hydrogen fluoride also generates large waste piles of fluorogypsum, which is laced with trace amounts of heavy metals, radioactive radium and other contaminants.
Derousselle, 51, died at the hospital after a valve failed, engulfing him in a mist of hydrogen fluoride, according to a state police report. About 39 pounds of hydrogen fluoride were released.
On May 25, Derousselle's son and daughter filed suit in a state district court in Ascension Parish against the maker and the local distributor of the gasket in the valve that allegedly failed, Leader Gasket Technologies and Erik's North America. Local contractors who installed it, Turner Industries, have also been sued.
David Thomas, who is representing the Derousselles, declined to comment Friday about the suit or the series of leaks since the death of his client.
Leader Gasket and the other companies have filed responses denying fault. Honeywell has not been named as a defendant in the suit.
Honeywell has already agreed to pay the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration $68,159 in fines following informal settlements of six of violations from Derousselle's death and from a follow-up inspection few days later, an agency database says.
The other leaks in 2022 happened due to leaking valves and flanges, holes in tanks, unseen corrosion and vents that were accidentally left open or connections that were misaligned, reports say.
With several releases between less than a pound to almost 50 pounds, Honeywell often wasn't required to report them. But, under an industry practice known as a courtesy notification, the company reported them to be transparent with the public and regulators, the Honeywell spokesman said.
One incident, however, involved an hour-and-a-half long release of 302 pounds of hydrogen fluoride on July 18 and was well above the required reporting threshold. Corrosion on a pipe covered with insulation allowed the dangerous chemical to escape, Honeywell later reported.
A release on Feb. 27, 2022, of 174,000 pounds of pentafluoropropane, a greenhouse gas that is used in refrigerants, sparked a follow-up DEQ inspection in early March 2022 and has led the agency to refer the incident to its enforcement division.
Honeywell told regulators that the leak went on for eight hours unnoticed because of a misaligned loading connection to a rail car. DEQ inspectors said the leak could have been avoided with better procedures and constituted a violation of state law.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:36 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, to include a statement from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.