By Mark Collette and Lise Olsen, HoustonChronicle.com

In the five years before a massive leak of toxic gas killed four workers at DuPont’s La Porte property, four plant managers had come and gone.

DuPont had spun off or sold a series of processing operations that had shared the sprawling plant for decades.

Employment had plunged.

Through all the turmoil, the pesticide unit where the four died remained one of the plant’s cash cows, former employees say. But only weeks before the Nov. 15 disaster, that unit’s longtime boss had taken over as manager of the entire plant, leaving his job vacant. And many other seasoned operators who best knew how to troubleshoot the pollution-plagued unit’s maze of poorly labeled pipes and tanks had retired or transferred out – leaving behind mostly rookies.

Turnover, safety shortcuts, deferred maintenance and excess pollution made the La Porte plant a microcosm of larger problems in DuPont, according to Houston Chronicle reviews of government reports and civil lawsuits, and interviews with former employees in several states. Records show that La Porte is one of more than a dozen North American DuPont plants that have been sued, fined or investigated over major safety lapses and accidents. The deaths in La Porte brought the total to eight fatalities at DuPont sites in the last seven years. And it all happened as the company undertook an aggressive campaign to reinvent itself, by boosting productivity, selling off assets and slashing costs.

The corporate safety culture went on trial in a Manhattan federal court in 2012. A competitor, Koch Industries, sued DuPont, and produced what it said was evidence of deferred maintenance and potentially lethal conditions that lurked in 14 plants. DuPont’s textiles division operated them under the Invista name before selling them to Koch – including a La Porte unit. Some of the worst conditions described in the lawsuit involved operations in Orange, Texas, where Koch auditors found cancer-causing benzene had been vented uncontrolled for 12 years and widespread corrosion posed risks of tank failures, explosions and deadly leaks. Koch’s lawyers referred to a document that they said showed that DuPont’s own safety team had in 1997 identified a “catastrophic safety risk” capable of killing multiple employees. It was similar to a problem at La Porte: Faulty vents threatened to expose workers to deadly fumes.

“DuPont focused on budgets and profits and left its site-level employees to figure environmental matters out on their own with virtually no training or support,” Koch attorney Martin Gaynor wrote in a trial brief.

DuPont settled the case with Koch. Corporate spokesman Aaron Woods declined to answer broader safety questions the Chronicle emailed him for this story.

“We are committed to maintaining the integrity of the ongoing investigations. To that end, it is premature for us to comment or provide additional information outside of these processes,” he said.

DuPont officials have said they dispute some of the preliminary findings released by the Chemical Safety Board in the La Porte accident, the third probe of DuPont by CSB since 2010. On its corporate website, DuPont insists that it continues a 200-year history of “safety and protection” and works to improve upon “its materials and standards that help keep all of us safe in the toughest conditions.”

Four of DuPont’s sulfuric acid plants in four states remain under a federal court order, after the U.S. Department of Justice alleged in 2007 that the company violated environmental laws by deferring maintenance and carrying out unpermitted upgrades.

Jeff Simoneaux, a former employee of DuPont’s largest sulfuric acid plant, Burnside in Louisiana, said no one told him about the allegations, even after the company agreed in 2008 to pay a $4.1 million penalty and carry out a court-ordered cleanup.

It was in 2011, after environmental upgrades, that plumes of poisonous gas began to leak almost constantly, according to videos and testimony that Simoneaux introduced in a federal whistleblower lawsuit. DuPont argued it was only steam with trace levels of sulfur compounds, according to Woods.

Simoneaux worried about his 30 co-workers, about truckers whom he’d seen pass out and topple from their cabs, and about children in nearby schools. Other employees and experts testified about injuries, spills and makeshift repairs at a trial in Baton Rouge, and DuPont did not deny that there were maintenance issues and leaks. But no one measured the amount of acid being released. That’s a factor legal experts consider important in proving a federal whistleblower lawsuit claim that the government was defrauded of monetary damages because of the unreported environmental problems. A jury found in DuPont’s favor earlier this year.

Evidence presented at trial included an audiotaped meeting in which Burnside’s plant manager, Tom Miller, warned employees to keep complaints in-house and not involve regulators or risk having their plant targeted for closure. In a deposition, Miller said all DuPont plant managers’ pay is partly based on the profits of their plants – and could suffer if they shut down too often for maintenance.

Simoneaux told the Chronicle he’d initially believed Burnside’s problems were isolated to their acid plant. He was shocked to learn that workers killed at the larger La Porte facility also had regularly patrolled for maintenance problems and toxic leaks without wearing respirators.

“We were all exposed constantly,” he said…

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