On the morning of June 13, 2013, a massive explosion rocked Geismar, La. As many as 600 workers were at the Williams Geismar Olefins chemical facility when an explosion occurred just after 8:30 a.m. Two employees died and another 167 reported injuries, many of them serious. The explosion started a large fire, and people as far away as 2 miles were ordered to shelter in place.
A jury in Iberville Parish, La, on Nov. 15 found that plant owners and operators “were negligent with respect to the cause of the June 13, 2013 incident.” The jury decided in favor of four workers injured in the explosion, reaching a combined $16.1 million verdict for the workers. Saudi-based Sabic Petrochemicals, which owns a 1/6th stake in the facility, was added as a co-defendant in the case and was assigned 16 percent of the liability. Other defendants included Williams Olefins and its parent company – which was assigned 83.6 percent of the fault – as well as plant official Parker Tucker and plant supervisor Larry Bayer, who each were assigned .2 percent of the fault.
The case is the second of many. In the first case, four workers were awarded a total of $13.6 million in damages by an Iberville Parish jury on Sept. 26. The jury determined that Williams' Oklahoma-based parent company was 95 percent responsible for the explosion and Williams Olefins was 3 percent to blame. The jury also determined that Tucker and Bayer each were responsible for 1 percent of the blame.
“Williams Companies Inc. cannot accept fault for the Geismar plant explosion without taking full responsibility for it, and that means providing full compensation to the workers they hurt,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Kurt Arnold. “Williams has made too many reckless choices that led to this explosion. They don't get to decide our client's futures. Twice they've left it up to a jury to decide what is reasonable, and juries have awarded a combined $30 million for the first eight workers who have taken their case to trial.”
Plaintiff Brian Cotton was awarded a total of $3,790,789, $2.5 million of it for “past and future” physical pain and suffering and mental anguish and emotional distress. Plaintiff Paul Thompson was awarded $5,799,907, with $3 million earmarked for physical pain and suffering and mental anguish and $1.3 million for diminished earning capacity. Veronica Sowell was awarded $4,596,281 total, with $2.7 million for physical and mental pain and anguish and $800,000 for future medical expenses. Dakota Kelley was awarded $1,930,000 total, with $60,000 for physical suffering and $1 million for past and future mental anguish and emotional distress.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in October released its final report into explosion, concluding that process safety management program deficiencies at the Williams Geismar facility during the 12 years leading to the incident allowed a type of heat exchanger called a “reboiler” to be unprotected from overpressure, and ultimately rupture, causing the explosion.
The Williams Geismar facility produces ethylene and propylene for the petrochemical industry and employs approximately 110 people. At the time of the incident, approximately 800 contractors worked at the plant on an expansion project aimed at increasing the production of ethylene.
“The tragic accident at Williams was preventable and therefore unacceptable,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland, when the agency released its report.
Williams Olefins was cited by OSHA in December 2013 for six process safety management standard violations, including one willful. Process safety management encompasses a detailed set of requirements and procedures employers must follow to address hazards proactively that are associated with processes and equipment that use large amounts of hazardous chemicals. In this case, it was the use of propylene.
"Williams Olefins violated safety and health standards which, when followed, can protect workers from hazardous chemicals," said Dorinda Folse, OSHA's area director in Baton Rouge at the time "It is the employer's responsibility to find and fix workplace safety violations and to ensure the safety of its workers. Failing to do so cost two workers their lives."
A willful violation was cited for failing to develop clear, written procedures for how to change and put idle pressure vessels into service. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.
The five serious violations include inadvertently mixing hot quench water with propylene; failing to provide appropriate pressure protection for a pressure vessel; complete a process hazard analysis to address the opening of hot quench water flow into a pressure vessel; properly document workplace training; and promptly correct deficiencies related to process safety management discovered by an internal compliance audit team. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
Proposed penalties were $99,000. The company reached a formal settlement with OSHA in December 2013 and agreed to pay total penalties of $36,000.
Additional trials are scheduled for January 2017 and April 2017.