LyondellBasell faces aftermath of deadly acetic acid accident in Texas

LyondellBasell’s plant in La Porte, Texas on July 27 accidentally released about 100,000 pounds of acetic acid killing two contractors and injuring 30 people.

LyondellBasell petrochemical complex in La Porte, Texas. Image courtesy of LyondellBasell

“Our investigation is underway, and it will be some time before we reach a conclusive determination recovery for all of the injured,” said company CEO Bhavesh Patel on July 30 during the second quarter 2021 earnings discussion.

The company will release its findings when they become available, he said, according to a Motley Fool transcript of the call.

Acetic acid occurs naturally in vinegar and gives it its odor. It is also an intermediary for vinyl acetate monomer (VAM) used to produce adhesives, paints and plastics. Plants can obtain acetic acid using methanol as feedstock.

Bursted cap on pressurized line

“Details have emerged in the wake of the deadly blast that indicates a cap burst on a pressurized line of acetic acid. As a result, about 100,000 pounds of a chemical mixture that was primarily acetic acid was released,” according to The Carlson Law Firm’s website. 

“In an initial report to the state, LyondellBasell said it believes 'valve isolation measures conducted during preparation for maintenance may have led to a release from an acetic acid reactor,'” according to the website of the law firm which has set up an office in Baytown, near the area, to represent victims or relatives.

The law firm said that according to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency’s records, the plant had “high priority’ violations of the Clean Air Act every quarter for the past three years,” it said.

“Just last year regulators also found a violation of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act,” it added.

Hospital treatment included care for vomiting, nose bleedings and respiratory complications, the law firm said.

LyondellBasell defends safety record

“As of the end of June, our year-to-date total recordable incident rate of 0.22 for employees and contractors remained in the top 10% of our industry,” said CEO Bhavesh Patel during the earnings discussion call.

As soon as investigations are over LyondellBasell will share findings “with our contractors, our employees and our industry peers. Our aim is to learn from all incidents and achieve a goal zero work environment that prevents such tragedies from occurring,” he added.

LyondellBasell is headquartered in Houston. It has nine manufacturing facilities in the Houston-area with about 4,500 total employees, according to its website.

In a separate report, Reuters news agency said on Aug. 3 that LyondellBasell announced the restart of a polymers and olefins units at La Porte following the acetic acid deadly incident occurred eight days earlier.

Both units were located in other parts of the La Porte site away from the incident, it said.

The incident was possibly the worst chemical exposure accident in the area since 2019, the news agency added.

LyondellBasell’s La Porte complex started up in 1959. It has seen expansions like an 800 million pounds-per-year ethylene production capacity increase in 2014. In 2019, it acquired a hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide gas plant and also added a polyethylene plant with capacity of 1.1 billion pounds per year.

Other recent incidents

The incident at LyondellBasell’s plant came within a week of another one at the Dow Chemical Co.’s Bayshore plant, also located in La Porte.

The Dow incident forced officials to order an evacuation within a half-mile radius of the plant because they feared a possible explosion, PBS reported on July 28.

That same Houston Public Media report said that in a separate incident earlier in July that involved another LyondellBasell plant in the area several residents reported headaches after breathing a pungent smell in the air.

Reuters news agency reported on July 30 that records showed that a contractor working at the same La Porte plant where the acetic acid incident occurred had sued LyondellBasell back in May over a work accident.

Chemical accidents such as fires, explosions and leaks even in the absence of major weather events have occurred in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The area has the greatest concentration of chemical plants in the Americas.

Earlier this year Dow agreed to invest $294 million to reduce air pollution from its operations in Louisiana and Texas.

Not only public scrutiny has intensified but there are also initiatives to reinstate taxes to the petrochemical industry related to the need to cover expenses in sites that require a costly long-term pollution clean-up efforts.

By Renzo Pipoli