The DuPont Co.’s failure to report widespread exposures to a potentially toxic chemical used to manufacture nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpet and hamburger wrappers will cost the company $16.5 million in fines and compensatory payouts.
Environmental Protection Agency officials said the settlement produced the largest administrative, non-court civil penalty in agency history, and would serve as a warning to industries that flout federal toxic substance control laws.
“This settlement sends a strong message that companies are responsible for promptly informing EPA about risk information associated with their chemicals,” said Granta Y. Nakayama, assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assur- ance.
Although the action was triggered by revelations about problems at DuPont’s Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., its terms require the company to spend $5 million studying how a wider variety of related chemicals and consumer products behave and break down in the environment.
Some of the chemicals covered by the research deal are handled at DuPont’s Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, N.J., at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, including C-8—also known as perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA—a chemical used in the production of Teflon.
One national organization, Environmental Working Group, said the penalty highlighted the federal government’s weak hand in dealing with industrial polluters.
“What’s the appropriate fine for a $25 billion company that for decades hid vital health information about a toxic chemical that now contaminates every man, woman and child in the United States?” Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. “We’re pretty sure it’s not $16 million, even if that is a record amount under a federal law that everyone acknowledges is extremely weak.”
Under its pact with the EPA, DuPont acknowledged no liability for failure to report its 1981 discovery that a compound used to make Teflon had contaminated the placenta and bloodstream of a West Virginia worker’s unborn child. The agreement also settled seven other claims of company failure to disclose violations of the Toxic Substance Control Act and a related hazardous pollution control law.
Among the complaints were allegations that DuPont withheld information for years about unexpected contamination in the blood of workers, and pollution releases that eventually contaminated water supplies serving thousands in West Virginia and Ohio.
“The fact of the matter is, we could have litigated this thing. We could have paid a lot of money and been in court for several years,” said DuPont Senior Vice President and General Counsel Stacey Mobley. “We made a determination that we’re going to put this thing behind us.”
Mobley said DuPont believes there are no human health effects associated with C-8.
More cases pending
DuPont has come under intense scrutiny in recent years with disclosures that the company’s synthetic chemicals, including PFOA, have been detected in the bloodstreams of people and animals around the globe. An EPA scientific advisory panel recently recommended labeling the material a “likely” carcinogen, although the finding remains in dispute.
Earlier this year, DuPont set aside $15 million in anticipation of settling the case. Still pending is a federal criminal probe of the company’s handling of federal requests for information.
The settlement requires DuPont pay $10.25 million in fines while also spending $5 million on a three-year study of the environmental breakdown characteristics of nine “fluorotelomer-based” products. The group includes soil-, stain- and grease-resistant coatings. Another $1.25 million will go to support school projects in West Virginia that reduce student exposure to harmful chemicals in science classrooms.
A former DuPont Co. engineer who lives in Hockessin recently accused the company of covering up indications that one of those chemicals escaped at higher-than-expected rates from paper coatings widely used for fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags and other prepared foods.
Mobley said DuPont already has cut PFOA emissions by 98 percent at its U.S. plants “and we are committed to reducing those emissions by 99 percent by 2007.”
Millions set for settlements
The company established a $108 million reserve last year to pay settlements in a West Virginia class action lawsuit involving citizen water pollution claims in Ohio and West Virginia. The settlement includes a medical monitoring agreement that could cost the company up to $235 million.
Vincent, Ohio, resident Kathy Minerd said tests had shown that she carries 480 parts per billion of PFOA in her blood, while her husband’s levels are 290 ppb—concentrations that were unknown outside of the workplace before the lawsuit forced community testing.
“At first they said it couldn’t hurt you, but I’m sure it’ll be a long time before they really know,” Kathy Minerd said.
DuPont is the nation’s only manufacturer of PFOA, although several other companies use the compound.
Company spokesman R. Clifton Webb said DuPont’s experience at its Parkersburg, W.Va. plant, where emissions have fallen dramatically, would help in other pollution control efforts. He also said that the company releases at a different plant that makes PFOA in Fayetteville, N.C., were far lower than those experienced by 3M Co., DuPont’s previous supplier. In 2002 3M stopped selling C-8; DuPont began producing at Fayetteville the same year, and now is investigating contamination of groundwater near the plant.