DuPont Louisiana Plant Safety Concerns Raised by Whistleblower

Doing the right thing did not go well for a former DuPont Co. employee who has been embroiled in a whistleblower case for the past three years. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana is set to wrap up this potentially groundbreaking jury trial in late January 2015. This lawsuit was filed by Jeff Simoneaux, a long-time DuPont employee, who alleges he was wrongfully terminated after reporting ongoing leaks of the carcinogen sulfur trioxide at the company’s acid regeneration plant in Burnside, Louisiana. This comes after four DuPont employees died in a chemical plant accident that occurred on November 14, 2014, in La Porte, Texas. This case has the potential to set a new precedent because Simoneaux chose to file under the False Claims Act rather than the traditional Whistleblower Protection Act. Designed to combat contract fraud and corporate conspiracy, the False Claims Act is an old statute that has been used in innovative ways since environmental laws were strengthened in 2010. As a whistleblower, the claimant’s recovery would normally be limited to lost earnings and reinstatement. By using the False Claims Act, the whistleblower can receive a portion of any environmental fines levied by the government. In this case, potential fines under the Toxic Substance Control Act are assessed at $25,000 per day for the duration of the violation. Although the U.S. Department of Justice has opted not to exercise its right to support his case, Simoneaux’s attorneys have continued on their own, which is unusual in so-called qui tam cases. Prior to his termination, Simoneaux worked for DuPont for 22 years and headed the plant’s Safety, Health and Environment Committee for the last 14 years. He maintains that his decision to make multiple internal reports and to contact outside agencies was in keeping with federal laws and DuPont’s own policies. To support his claim, Simoneaux has provided video footage and photos of toxic sulfur clouds emanating from the facility. The jury has also reviewed secret audio recordings of the plant manager warning employees not to report the emissions. The plaintiff’s claim is backed up by testimony from another senior employee who was fired after seeking medical treatment for eye and throat irritation that is consistent with sulfuric acid exposure. Downplaying the issue, DuPont attorney Monique Weiner said that there are always visible emissions coming from chemical plants in southern Louisiana. She added that preparing onions for gumbo releases sulfuric acid, but no one has died from chopping them. This quagmire of forms, internal records and environmental laws stems from unrepaired cracks in the plant’s heat exchanger and pressure vessels. Although DuPont did order a replacement from China and could have welded the holes, they opted to plug the voids with plastic tubing and duct tape while continuing regular operations. Any Houston industrial accident lawyer knows that reporting potential violations is an important part of maintaining a safe workplace. However, in this case, the focus has been on whether the levels were reportable. DuPont contends that emissions were minimal, yet the plaintiff argues that DuPont concealed the problem to avoid paying federal fines. This is not the first time that DuPont has violated environmental laws. In 2007, the company paid $4 million in fines for emission violations at four plants, including the one in Louisiana. Although DuPont sells its safety practices to other companies and has been praised for its industry-leading environmental controls, it has a poor track record. Since 2007, there have been at least 34 toxic releases at the company’s 30 U.S. plants. Although it is important to protect the environment, it is even more important to protect the lives of employees who could be injured in a Louisiana or Houston petrochemical plant accident.