Fatal Chemical Leak by SC Company Results in Federal Charges

A toxic chemical cloud billowing from an ammonia plant in Lexington County four years ago enveloped a mother of two as she drove by on her way to work – and killed her. chemicals1.jpg

Our South Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys understand that in the time that has since past, both the Georgia-based transportation company and the Pennsylvania-based chemical provider have been investigated and heavily fined by the state’s labor and health departments.

The transportation firm that runs the plant is now facing federal criminal charges for allegedly violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. A grand jury indicted the firm for negligently placing another person in imminent danger of death and/or serious bodily injury. Still, it’s not as if anyone is likely to go to jail – the criminal misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a $500,000 fine.

According to local media reports, the leak happened when a hose blew as the chemical was being transferred from the plant into the transportation company’s tanker truck. In all, some 7,000 pounds of toxic ammonia was released into the air after an incorrect type of hose was used.

Unaware of any of this, the healthcare worker driving by the plant was consumed in the cloud, and killed. Additionally, seven others were rushed to area hospitals and local officials evacuated the entire area to flee the toxic threat. The pollution actually blackened trees and other plants for hundreds of yards surrounding the plant. It was one of the worst chemical leaks ever reported in the state, following a 2005 train crash in Graniteville that resulted in a chlorine spill that killed nine people.

Officials have indicated that both companies are under federal investigation, and the plant could face charges as well. Both have blamed the error on the other. Plant officials have said they were counting on the transportation firm to use the correct hose.

Still, the state department of health has already fined the plant more than $90,000 for a number of failures with regard to emergency preparedness, in addition to another $24,000 for workplace safety violations.

It’s important for all businesses to recognize the potential for chemical exposure to employees. According to Occupational Safety & Health Administration, there are some 165,000 chemicals and chemical substances used in the workplace that pose potential health risks to workers. Some of the most common are ammonia solutions, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, dihydrogen monoxide, hydrogen phosphide and propyl nitrate. These chemicals not only have the potential to burn the lungs, but they are known for dangers with regard to explosiveness, flammability or reactivity. These substances can be found in a wide range of products, from pharmaceutical to agricultural.

Most of chemical injuries or fatalities in the workplace are preventable, and could have been headed off with the use of proper safety and/or response procedures.

Companies that frequently use these dangerous chemicals have the option to invite an OSHA inspector to walk through the firm in order to identify potential hazards and make suggestions for safety procedures through the agency’s free on-site consultation program.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Criminal charge filed in fatal 2009 Lex. Co. chemical leak, Feb. 7, 2013, By Sammy Fretwell, Th tate

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Fatal South Carolina Work Accident Raises Questions About Adequate Training, Emergency Response, Feb. 2, 2013, South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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