DuPont Rebuts Charges it Failed to Notify Regulators about Chemical Spills
Dec. 17WASHINGTON Attorneys for DuPont Co. strongly denied at a federal hearing yesterday that the company had improperly withheld information about environmental and possible health impacts of a chemical used to make Teflon.
The company did not notify federal regulators on several occasions when the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was found in public water supplies near its factory in Parkersburg, W. Va., starting in 1984.
But a change in reporting requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, hammered out in several stages between 1991 and 1996, absolved industry from having to disclose any such information that came to light before 1992, DuPont's attorneys told administrative law judge Barbara A. Gunning.
EPA attorneys countered that the disclosure requirement still applied.
"In 1991, they were required to satisfy the ... reporting requirement," said agency attorney Meredith Miller. "They failed to do so. That is why EPA is here today."
The courtroom arguments marked the first round of a battle that, if maximum penalties are assessed, would cost DuPont more than $300 million. The final amount is expected to be significantly less than that. But the proceedings yesterday were a reminder that 20 years after PFOA was discovered in West Virginia and Ohio drinking water, many questions remain about this persistent environmental contaminant commonly found in blood samples of people and animals worldwide.
The chemical has been linked to liver toxicity and other health problems in lab animals; scientists remain unsure whether it is unsafe for humans at current levels.
A form of PFOA is used to make Teflon and other non-stick coatings for pots and pans, medical equipment and airplane parts, among many other products. PFOA is used up during the manufacturing process and is generally not found in the final products, and scientists are unsure how it is getting into human blood.
People living near the Parkersburg factory, known as Washington Works, were exposed to the chemical through drinking water. Elsewhere in the country and abroad, scientists think human exposure is the fault of another class of chemicals, called telomers, that are used to make stain-resistant carpets and raincoats, and which break down into PFOA.
In September, Dupont agree to pay at least $108 million to settle a class action suit brought by residents near the West Virginia factory.
In addition to the drinking-water data, EPA also has accused DuPont of failing to disclose that in 1981, the chemical was found to have crossed the placentas of pregnant factory workers. In its original complaint in July, EPA said two separate laws required DuPont to have disclosed that information. One law required it to be disclosed when it was first detected in 1981; another law required disclosure in 1997, when the factory's hazardous-waste permit was under review.
EPA is seeking penalties under both laws.
The 1981 allegation was not part of the arguments yesterday, because DuPont has requested more information on it from the EPA. As for the 1997 allegation, DuPont's attorneys said the company was not required to disclose the exposure because the chemical is not classified as a hazardous waste.
In addition, said attorney John C. Martin of the Washington, D.C. firm of Patton Boggs, there was no evidence that the chemical was harmful.
"This was not known toxicological information," Martin told Judge Gunning.
Not so, countered EPA attorney Ilana Saltzbart.
"This count is not about whether PFOA is a hazardous waste," Saltzbart said, accusing DuPont's attorneys of making a "mischaracterization of the law."
"DuPont had a duty to disclose this information when EPA specifically requested it."
The agency requested all health-related information on the chemical at the time, and DuPont provided some of it but not the data about PFOA crossing the placenta.
Much of EPA's case against DuPont was prompted by the research of Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group that sent representatives to Judge Gunning's courtroom yesterday.
The judge is not expected to make a decision on the charges until at least next year.
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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.