Chemical Companies’ ‘Voluntary’ Clean Ups Are Little More Than Corporate Spin

Last week Chemours – a DuPont spinoff company that inherited liability for some of its parent's nastiest toxic messes – announced "voluntary actions" to clean up and eliminate pollution from a highly fluorinated chemical, which is a potential human carcinogen. The company’s Fayetteville, N.C., plant has been discharging the chemical, GenX, into the Cape Fear River since 1980.

Voluntary: like paying your back taxes when you get the audit letter from the IRS. Like slowing down when the highway patrol officer points his radar gun at your car. Like your 5-year-old putting the cookie back in the jar when you walk in the kitchen.

Promising to do the right thing when you're caught doing the wrong thing, or in hopes of dodging punishment for your misdeeds, is not what most people would call voluntary. But in the shameful saga of fluorinated chemicals polluting the planet and contaminating almost every American’s blood, Chemours, DuPont and other companies have repeatedly characterized their too-little-too-late cleanup or phaseout efforts as voluntary.   

Here’s what Chemours’ announcement didn’t say:

GenX is a successor to PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon. PFOA has been linked to cancer in people, reduced effectiveness of childhood vaccines and other serious health problems at even the smallest doses. GenX's chemical structure is very similar to PFOA's, it was not adequately tested for safety before being put on the market and in 2009 DuPont acknowledged to the Environmental Protection Agency it caused cancer in lab animals.

GenX is just one of the dozens of known or suspected hazardous contaminants for which there are no enforceable state or federal regulations. Water utilities don’t have to test for it, but last fall a study from North Carolina University researchers found GenX in the Cape Fear watershed at levels 10 times higher than the EPA's non-enforceable health advisory for PFOA in drinking water. Other fluorinated chemicals were also found in the water at even higher concentrations. At the time, Chemours took no public action.

This year, an ongoing investigation by StarNews in Wilmington, N.C., reported GenX contamination in Cape Fear-area drinking water systems. Citizens and local officials erupted in outrage. State regulators initiated water sampling to determine the extent of the contamination. And the EPA launched an investigation into whether Chemours is in compliance with the 2009 rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act that permitted production of GenX.

That finally prompted a response from the company. In a press release touting “Voluntary Actions to Respond to North Carolina Community,” Chemours said “it will capture, remove and safely dispose of wastewater that contains GenX.”

The GenX story is far from over. But already it is sickeningly reminiscent of what happened with PFOA, the DuPont Teflon chemical that it replaced, and PFOS, a fluorinated compound formerly used in 3M’s Scotchgard.    

Starting in 1999, a lawyer investigating mysterious cattle deaths near DuPont’s Parkersburg, W.Va., plant unearthed documents showing that DuPont knew for decades PFOA was hazardous and polluting drinking water in the mid-Ohio River Valley. The company never told local officials, state regulators or the EPA.

The revelations led to a class-action lawsuit that DuPont settled in 2005 for more than $300 million and 3,500 personal injury lawsuits the company settled last year for more than $650 million. The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation, but DuPont got off relatively easy: a $16.5 million fine from the EPA for withholding internal studies of PFOA’s hazards. The company also agreed to phase out PFOA over the next 10 years – a deal that to this day, DuPont, the EPA and most journalists describe as voluntary.

In 2000, just months after the PFOA scandal began to unravel, 3M announced it would stop making PFOS and other fluorinated chemicals, “based on our principles of responsible environmental management.” A 3M spokesman told The New York Times the chemicals “pose no health risk to humans” but because they build up in the environment, ending production was “a corporate responsibility issue.”

Two days later the Times reported that the EPA had pressured 3M to act after it reviewed the company’s own tests showing that fluorinated chemicals built up in people’s bodies and that high doses killed lab animals. The Times reported that if 3M had not acted, the EPA would have taken steps to remove the product from the market.

Only a chemical industry public relations flack would not admit the plain truth: Chemours’ GenX cleanup, DuPont’s PFOA phaseout and 3M’s halting of PFOS production came only after the companies’ toxic secrets were uncovered and they faced public outrage, regulatory action, enforcement fines or legal liability. The real reason chemicals are so often taken off the market by “voluntary” corporate actions is that federal law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban a chemical outright.

So spare us the spin about voluntary actions in the name of corporate responsibility. If chemical companies want credit for doing the right thing, here’s an idea: Adopt a policy of not putting products on the market unless you can prove they are safe.

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