The New York Times Magazine recently published an in-depth story titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The story follows Rob Bilott, a lawyer who took on an environmental suit that would completely alter his career and expose a decades-long cover up of toxic pollution. DuPont is one of the largest chemical companies in the world, holding tremendous power despite its numerous wrongdoings.1
Here are five things you should know about the industry giant:
1. DuPont knew it was polluting communities with a toxic chemical, but kept it quiet for decades.
In 1951, DuPont began purchasing a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) for use in manufacturing Teflon. DuPont was given specific instructions on how to dispose of this chemical — it was to be incinerated or sent to chemical-waste facilities.2 But in the following decades, DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of the chemical from its Parkersburg, West Virginia plant into the Ohio River. DuPont also dumped thousands of tons of PFOA sludge into pits, where it seeped straight into the ground and contaminated the drinking water of nearby communities.2
As they continued to pollute, DuPont was conducting research on PFOA, and as early as the 1960s knew that it could cause organ damage in animals.2 In the 1970s, DuPont found that there were high concentrations of the toxic chemical in the blood of their workers employed at Washington Works, a waste landfill where they disposed of PFOA. They failed to tell their workers about this discovery.2
In the 1980s, after learning that PFOA causes birth defects in rats, DuPont confirmed that the chemical was affecting their workers’ health. They tested the children of pregnant employees in their Teflon division, and found that of seven births, two had eye defects.2 Even then, DuPont did not make the information public.
By the 1990s, DuPont understood that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumors in lab animals. And in 1993, they created a slightly safer alternative to PFOA, but decided not to switch to the new compound because they worried it might not work as well and would jeopardize their profit.2
In 2006, after years of legal battles, DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for concealing its knowledge of PFOA’s toxicity and presence in the environment. This fine, while a huge civil penalty (the largest the EPA has obtained in its history at that point), was a drop in the bucket for DuPont, representing less than two percent of the company’s profits earned by PFOA that year.2
2. As of October 2015, 3,535 plaintiffs have filed personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont for harm from PFOA.
The first of 3,535 plaintiffs went to court last fall, arguing that DuPont had leaked PFOA into drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia, causing her kidney cancer. DuPont was found liable for Carla Bartlett’s cancer, and Bartlett was awarded $1.6 million in damages.
“This is not a run-of-the-mill case. This was allegedly a systematic behavior. It doesn’t sound like an accident. It sounds worse than an accident,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia about the personal-injury lawsuit.3
DuPont’s lawyer, Damond Mace, denied the causal link between PFOA and cancer, saying it is not harmful or regulated by the EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations list of contaminants. “There were no laws restricting the use of it,” said Mace.3 This point speaks to how weak our federal regulation of toxic chemicals is; sadly, it’s no surprise that PFOA is not restricted. There is so little regulatory oversight of these chemical companies that toxic chemicals can easily slip through the cracks. “We see a situation that has gone from Washington Works, to statewide, to the United States, and now it’s everywhere, it’s global. We’ve taken the cap off something here. But it’s not just DuPont. Good God. There are over 60,000 unregulated chemicals out there right now. We have no idea what we’re talking,” said Joe Kiger, a resident of Parkersburg, West Virginia, whose drinking water was contaminated with PFOA.2
Rob Bilott, the lawyer who uncovered DuPont’s decades-long cover up and fought for appropriate repercussions, is currently litigating Wolf v. DuPont, the second of the personal-injury cases against DuPont. The plaintiff, John Wolf of Parkersburg, West Virginia, argues that PFOA in his drinking water caused him to develop ulcerative colitis, and his trial begins in March.2
3. DuPont never admitted liability
When DuPont reached a settlement with the EPA in 2006 after being accused of concealing its knowledge of PFOA’s toxicity and presence in the environment, it had to pay up millions, but never had to admit liability. Throughout the decades, DuPont has continued to deny, deny, deny. They’ve denied the toxicity of PFOA, they’ve denied their knowledge of the subject, and they’ve denied wrongdoing in case after case after case.4
In fact, in July of 2015, DuPont created the Chemours Company, a spinoff from DuPont’s Teflon unit. Residents of Ohio and West Virginia view this spinoff as an attempt to separate DuPont from Teflon-related legal troubles. In 2004, DuPont agreed to pay $235 million to monitor the health of residents around Parkersburg, Virginia. Now, with Chemours in debt and assuming DuPont’s PFOA liabilities, there is concern that DuPont is evading its responsibilities.5
4. Safety records at DuPont plants are inexcusable
On November 15th, 2014, four employees were killed in an incident at a DuPont plant in La Porte, Texas. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation found lapses and failures in DuPont’s safety planning and procedures that regularly put workers and the surrounding community at risk, and concluded that with appropriate safety procedures, the fatal toxic leak could have been prevented.6
DuPont is not alone — many of the largest chemical companies in the country have had similar safety problems — but the company is a crucial illustration of the larger problem. Powerful chemical companies fail to implement adequate safety regulations, they are investigated and eventually fined, and nothing changes. Fines aren’t changing safety behavior because even the largest ones mean nothing to these companies. In their 2015 report “Blowing Smoke,” the Center for Effective Government (CEG) explains the ineffectiveness of fines: “DuPont reported $3.6 billion in profits in 2014, or around $6,849 per minute. At that rate, the company would have been able to pay off the two OSHA penalties with just under an hour’s worth of profits.”7 Fine after fine may come, but the pattern remains the same. CEG’s report found that DuPont has had 125 serious safety violations, resulting in more than $3 million in penalties.7
In the face of all its problems, DuPont remains a big player, serving on the board of the American Chemistry Council. The company spent more than $24 million between 2012 and 2014 lobbying Congress and federal agencies, so it’s no surprise that no serious attempt to improve safety regulations for DuPont or any chemical manufacturer have been made.7
5. DuPont recently merged with Dow to become a $130 billion chemical giant
DuPont and Dow Chemical Co. announced a mega-merger in December of last year that will create chemical giant DowDuPont.8 DowDuPont will break into three separate companies in the next two years, each one specializing in one area: agriculture, material science, and specialty products.9 As a result of the merger, DuPont announced it expects $650 million of “employee separation costs,” and is expected to lay off around 10 percent of its global workforce — close to 5,000 people.10
1New York Times, “Despite Clear Dangers, DuPont Kept Using a Toxic Chemical,” 1/12/2016.
2New York Times Magazine, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” 1/6/2016.
3Bloomberg, “DuPont Found Liable in First of 3,500 Toxic Water Lawsuits,” 10/7/2015.
4Center for Effective Government, “Ten Years After Toxic Chemical Settlement, DuPont Failing to Keep Its Promises,” 5/7/2015.
5Bloomberg, “DuPont’s Teflon Neighbors Worry Chemours Won’t Pay Bills,” 5/7/2015.
6KPRC Houston, “Report finds series of errors caused deadly DuPont plant accident in La Porte,” 9/30//2015.
7Center for Effective Government, “Blowing Smoke: Chemical Companies Say ‘Trust Us,’ But Environmental and Workplace Safety Violations Belie Their Rhetoric,” 10/22/2015.
8CNN Money, “Meet DowDuPont: The new $130 billion chemical mega-company,” 12/11/2015.
9Fortune, “Dow Chemical and DuPont Announce Mega-Merger,” 12/11/2015.
10Delaware Online, “‘Depressing’ atmosphere envelops DuPont as layoffs begin,” 1/4/2016.