A routine-seeming government meeting this Friday marks the public debut of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is one of the most sweeping regulatory inquiries it has ever mounted on an industrial chemical. The chemical happens to be the key manufacturing aid for what is unquestionably DuPont’s marquee product brand, Teflon.
DuPont officials have put the best possible face on this exceedingly rare EPA inquiry into the Teflon chemical, known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), ever since the agency announced the effort in April 2003. EPA launched the investigation citing concerns about the substance’s toxicity, its extraordinary persistence in the environment, and the fact that it has turned up in the blood of almost everyone in the U.S. — especially children. Neither government nor DuPont scientists can explain why.
DuPont executives gamely claim to welcome intensive government scrutiny of a chemical that underpins a multi-billion dollar business. Indeed, company officials have gone so far as to say they are encouraged by the prospect that EPA might begin to regulate a chemical has gone unregulated for more than a half century. The controversy is enough of a serious threat that DuPont CEO Charles Holliday, Jr. took the unusual step of opening the company’s most recent shareholder meeting with a detailed defense of Teflon’s and PFOA’s safety. His speech marked a shift in the company’s defensive position, from the offices of its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to corporate headquarters, in Wilmington, Delaware. The defensive lines have likewise shifted in cyberspace. This spring, DuPont began giving prominence to the Teflon controversy on the corporation’s main home page, supplanting the obscure, low-profile Internet site to which it previously had confined comment on the controversy.
But a dramatically different corporate stance is evident in the company’s aggressive and, in some cases, illegal maneuvering to stave off the EPA inquiry, contain legal liabilities and keep the unfolding story out of the media.
Some of the drama has played out in Washington, where DuPont has hired a legion of lobbyists, including former EPA officials, to work the system at the agency and the White House.
But the most revealing indications of the extreme measures DuPont has been willing to take to protect its Teflon franchise have emerged in a West Virginia courtroom. There, 3,000 people have filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont for polluting their tap water over decades with PFOA from the company’s Teflon manufacturing facility in Parkersburg. In that same courtroom, a local family recently settled a separate suit with DuPont for water pollution that killed their livestock.
- In March 2001 Dupont attorneys filed an extraordinary request for a secret Temporary Restraining Order to prevent the company’s legal nemesis, lawyer Rob Bilott, from speaking about the Teflon pollutant at a public EPA meeting on a related chemical—the original ingredient in Scotchgard—that EPA forced off the market, because, in part, of DuPont’s worries about the “negative publicity” Bilott’s comments might bring to the company. [View document] The judge denied the Temporary Restraining Order [View document], and denied DuPont’s request to keep the company’s gag request secret [View document].
- Dupont was sanctioned and fined this spring after the judge learned that a DuPont toxicologist destroyed evidence on health effects related to PFOA, and that the company had refused to turn over important documents related to the case [View document]. DuPont was also ordered to conduct blood tests for PFOA for anyone in the community drinking PFOA-contaminated tap water [View document].
- DuPont subsequently tried to remove Judge Hill from trying the drinking water case, claiming that since he was a resident of Wood County and might be a member of the class, he was a biased judge. Yet three years ago DuPont fought — and won — to have the case tried in Judge Hill’s district of Wood County, West Virginia, not the state’s capitol where it was orginially filed. DuPont praised the decision to locate the case in Wood County [View news release].
- Most importantly, a flood of embarrassing revelations contained in internal company documents regarding secret water tests, worker studies, and scrapped pollution elimination plans, all of which depict DuPont as anything but a good corporate neighbor and which prompted an EWG request for an official probe into potential violations of federal law, which EPA now has underway.