Suit: Company has history of mishandling chemicals

A contractor suing over the fatal June 13 Williams Olefins explosion at its Geismar plant raises recent federal workplace safety violations brought against the Tulsa, Okla., company and alleges Williams has a history of problems handling chemicals.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, the new suit brought by Abraham J. Bosley of Iberville Parish is the ninth in state or federal court over the explosion and the third brought this month.

Two of the older cases have been dismissed.

A flammable vapor cloud ignited from ruptured equipment in the company’s propylene fractionation unit, causing a massive fireball, a Williams investigation found.

At the time, the plant was undergoing expansion, and 839 employees and contractors were on site. The blast killed two and injured 114 people.

Investigators with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have focused on a reboiler, or heat exchanger, that a safety board official said “failed catastrophically” inside the fractionation unit.

The most serious of the six OSHA violations brought last year involves Williams’ operation of that kind of equipment while idle.

Bosley alleges Williams had a history of “citations, warnings and shut-downs due to improper storage and handling of chemicals including propylene,” the suit says.

“This included a citation in 2010 for releasing excess amounts of ethylene, and a December 2012 plant shut down for a propylene leak.”

Bosley claims he was working in a plant near the Williams Olefins complex, which is southeast of the La. 30/La. 3115 interchange and alleges toxic chemicals released during the explosion harmed his respiratory system. He also claims damages and expenses for the fear, inconvenience and loss of income from an evacuation tied to the fire.

In other suits, Williams has responded in court and disputed allegations similar to what Bosley is raising.

Tom Droege, spokesman for the Tulsa, Okla., company, declined comment Thursday, citing company policy on litigation. Williams is appealing the OSHA violations.

Bosley is seeking class-action status to include other workers, residents and business affected by evacuations prompted by the blast.

His suit comes as attorneys representing plaintiffs in consolidated lawsuits already in U.S. District Court are seeking to certify a class for the incident. A hearing has been set for 9:30 a.m. June 12.

Bosley’s attorney Eric O’Bell said Wednesday he plans to join the consolidated cases.

In another suit filed Feb. 12 in Ascension Parish, plaintiffs Artie Hudson and Jeffery D. Wells claimed severe injuries, including respiratory problems from the fire.

The men, who were contractors employed by MMR Group Inc. and were working in the Williams plant, allege they and other workers were trapped inside the complex because of a locked gate.

“In desperate attempts to escape the firestorm and smoke, workers scrambled in chaos to climb over the gated area,” that suit alleges.

“Thereafter, an unknown vehicle crashed through the gate allowing workers to evacuate.”

The suit claims the plaintiffs were exposed to ethane, ethylene, propylene and other chemicals during the escape.

In addition to Williams and affiliated companies, the suit also names contractors as defendants, though not MMR.