How Chemical Companies Avoid Paying for Pollution
DuPont factories pumped dangerous substances into the environment. The company and its offspring have gone to great lengths to dodge responsibility.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — One humid day this summer, Brian Long, a senior executive at the chemical company Chemours, took a reporter on a tour of the Fayetteville Works factory.
Mr. Long showed off the plant’s new antipollution technologies, designed to stop a chemical called GenX from pouring into the Cape Fear River, escaping into the air and seeping into the ground water.
There was a new high-tech filtration system. And a new thermal oxidizer, which heats waste to 2,000 degrees. And an underground wall — still under construction — to keep the chemicals out of the river. And more.
“They’re not Band-Aids,” Mr. Long said. “They’re long-term, robust solutions.”
Yet weeks later, North Carolina officials announced that Chemours had exceeded limits on how much GenX its Fayetteville factory was emitting. This month, the state fined the company $300,000 for the violations — the second time this year the company has been penalized by the state’s environmental regulator.
GenX is part of a family of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They allow everyday items — frying pans, rain jackets, face masks, pizza boxes — to repel water, grease and stains. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems.
To avoid responsibility for what many experts believe is a public health crisis, leading chemical companies like Chemours, DuPont and 3M have deployed a potent mix of tactics.
They have used public charm offensives to persuade regulators and lawmakers to back off. They have engineered complex corporate transactions to shield themselves from legal liability. And they have rolled out a conveyor belt of scantly tested substitute chemicals that sometimes turn out to be just as dangerous as their predecessors.
“You don’t have to live near Chemours or DuPont or 3M to have exposure to these things,” said Linda S. Birnbaum, the former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “It is in the water. It is in our food. It’s in our homes and in our house dust. And depending where you live, it may be in our air.”
Contaminants in the Groundwater
Since 2018, potentially unsafe levels of PFAS have been found in the groundwater of more than 4,000 residential parcels near the Chemours factory in Fayetteville, N.C., according to the state’s environmental regulator. High concentrations of GenX, a type of PFAS, were found in 232 of those parcels. More than 4,000 homes qualify for under-sink treatment systems because of the contamination.
PFAS substances are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and can accumulate in the environment and in the blood and organs of people and animals.
When the compounds get into water supplies, the effects can be devastating. Around Madison, Wis., residents are advised not to eat the fish from nearby lakes. In Wayland, Mass., residents are drinking bottled water because the tap water is contaminated. In northern Michigan, scientists found unsafe levels of PFAS in the rain. Most Americans have been exposed to at least trace amounts of the chemicals and have them in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research by chemical companies and academics has shown that exposure to PFAS has been linked to cancer, liver damage, birth defects and other health problems. GenX was supposed to be a safer alternative to earlier generations of the chemicals, but new studies are discovering similar health hazards.
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was going to start requiring companies to test and publicly report the amount of PFAS in the products they make. It is an early step toward regulating the chemicals, though the E.P.A. has not set limits on their production or discharge.
The E.P.A. administrator, Michael S. Regan, who announced the new rules, previously was the top environmental regulator in North Carolina, where he clashed with Chemours over its GenX pollution.
“PFAS contamination has been devastating communities for decades,” Mr. Regan said. “I saw this firsthand in North Carolina.”
The situation in Fayetteville is in many ways emblematic of the battles being waged in communities nationwide. Pollution from Fayetteville Works has shown up in drinking water as far as 90 miles away from the plant.
Chemours argues that most of the pollution in North Carolina occurred long before it owned Fayetteville Works. DuPont, which built the factory in the 1960s, claims it can’t be held liable because of a corporate reorganization that took place several years ago. DuPont “does not produce” the chemicals in question, “and we are not in a position to comment on products that are owned by other independent, publicly traded companies,” said a DuPont spokesman, Daniel A. Turner.
Both companies have downplayed the dangers of their chemicals and opted for occasional piecemeal fixes rather than comprehensive but costly solutions that would have protected the environment, according to interviews with scientists, lawyers, regulators, company officials and residents and a review of previously unreported documents detailing the industry’s tactics.
Mike Watters, an Army veteran who lives near Fayetteville Works, is battling leukemia, which he believes is the result of exposure to PFAS in his property’s well water, the air and even the pine needles. Many of his neighbors have cancer, too.
“Twenty-three years in Special Forces and the enemy couldn’t kill me,” Mr. Watters said. “But my water very well may.”
Thom Sueta, a Chemours spokesman, said the Fayetteville factory wasn’t the only source of pollution in the Cape Fear River and that Chemours has spent more than $100 million on “new emissions control technologies” at the factory.
“We know of no other company in North Carolina that has committed to or taken as comprehensive an approach to addressing environmental issues as Chemours has taken,” he said. “Our actions to address both water and air emissions of PFAS compounds have resulted in a significant decrease in the level of compounds associated with our Fayetteville site in the Cape Fear River.”
The Deranged Cows
The battles over PFAS have been raging for more than 20 years.
In 1999, Wilbur Tennant, a farmer who lived next to a DuPont plant in West Virginia, sued the company after his cows started acting deranged and dying.
During the discovery process in the litigation, Mr. Tennant’s lawyers unearthed DuPont documents showing that the company’s Washington Works factory in Parkersburg, W.Va., had been dumping a type of PFAS into the Ohio River and that the chemicals had contaminated drinking water supplies for more than 100,000 people.
In 2001, DuPont told North Carolina regulators that it planned to start producing a type of PFAS at Fayetteville Works. The company said the chemical, known as PFOA, was safe for humans and animals.
But the company’s own research contradicted those assurances. The E.P.A. later accused DuPont of failing to disclose that PFOA posed “substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment.” The agency imposed a $10.25 million penalty in 2005.
By then, DuPont had discovered PFOA in groundwater near the Fayetteville plant.
As regulators scrutinized PFOA, DuPont searched for a substitute. It settled on GenX. It was another type of PFAS, and the company had been creating it for decades as a byproduct at Fayetteville Works.
DuPont promoted GenX as a safer alternative, but the company soon realized it might be harmful. In reports later submitted to the E.P.A., the company acknowledged that rodents exposed to GenX suffered birth defects and showed signs of liver disease and cell changes indicative of early-stage cancer.
Independent studies subsequently reached similar conclusions. In 2018, the E.P.A. linked exposure to GenX to problems in animals’ livers, kidneys, blood, immune systems and fetuses, and identified a potential connection to cancer. (Because the chemical is relatively new, there is limited research about the health effects of GenX on humans.)
While DuPont acknowledged the health risks to the E.P.A., it was telling a different story to regulators in North Carolina, according to documents that detail communications between the company and regulators. During a meeting with state environmental officials in 2010, for example, executives claimed that GenX had a “favorable toxicological profile” because it was eliminated from the body within 24 hours, compared with the months it took for PFOA to disappear.
DuPont also told North Carolina regulators that they wouldn’t dump GenX into the Cape Fear River — even though they had been discharging the chemical into the river since the 1980s and would continue to do so.
At the time, DuPont was working to win over the Cape Fear community. On a spring day in 2011, Ellen Kullman, DuPont’s chief executive, joined about 200 plant workers, executives, politicians and community members at the factory to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Guests enjoyed barbecue and country music in the shadow of the plant’s smokestacks. Politicians praised DuPont for creating jobs. Company executives promoted the plant’s impact on the community and local environment, boasting about how the company was planting pine trees and building nesting boxes for bluebirds.
Ms. Kullman commended her employees for being good neighbors. “Fayetteville Works has also been successful due to the great relationship you have with the community,” she said.
In 2013, the hedge fund manager Nelson Peltz bought 2.2 percent of DuPont’s stock through his firm Trian Partners, making him one of the company’s largest shareholders. Mr. Peltz began pushing to break up the company in order to maximize returns for investors.
In part to appease Mr. Peltz, DuPont executives decided to spin off the company’s “Performance Chemicals” operations — which was growing slower than some of DuPont’s other business lines — into a separate company.
The new company would be called Chemours. It would own 37 chemical plants, including Fayetteville Works and others that used PFAS in West Virginia, the Netherlands, China and Japan. DuPont also arranged for Chemours to assume the liabilities — costs from litigation or government investigations, for example — associated with other DuPont businesses, like its explosives and asbestos operations.
By shunting the chemical factories into an independent company, DuPont would be insulated from future lawsuits related to those chemicals.
“The spinoff of performance chemicals is clearly the best option to deliver enhanced value for our shareholders,” Ms. Kullman said at the time.
Further sweetening the deal for DuPont shareholders, Chemours borrowed $4 billion and paid $3.9 billion to DuPont as a dividend.
Chemours went public in July 2015. The company was initially owned by DuPont shareholders, but as investors sold the shares, the stock plunged.
Ms. Kullman retired months later. She had earned more than $83 million during her six years as DuPont’s chief executive.
After her departure, DuPont continued its transformation. It merged with Dow, a longtime rival. The combined company, DowDuPont, then divided its assets into three new companies: Dow, DuPont de Nemours and Corteva.
The DuPont that had existed just months before, a more-than-100-year-old icon of American capitalism, was no more.
A Blame-Shifting Exercise
The transactions that created Chemours and reinvented DuPont laid the groundwork for a blame-shifting exercise that has made it difficult for regulators and others to hold anyone accountable for decades of contamination in North Carolina and elsewhere.
State attorneys general in Ohio, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York each sued the companies for having released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil and for concocting a spinoff to shield DuPont from responsibility. Dutch prosecutors began criminally investigating Chemours for the use of PFOA at a factory in Dordrecht from 2008 to 2012, before Chemours was created.
Yet in courts, in the media and in public settings, DuPont and Chemours have used the spinoff to distance themselves from the problems.
In a court filing in Ohio, where the state has sued over pollution from the Washington Works factory on the West Virginia border, Chemours claimed that the contamination happened before “Chemours even came into existence.” In a securities filing this summer, Chemours stated that it “does not, and has never, used” PFOA. Yet Chemours continues to manufacture other versions of PFAS, including GenX.
DuPont adopted a similar stance. Because Chemours was independent and had assumed responsibility for Washington Works, DuPont claimed it had nothing to do with the pollution. In fact, DuPont insisted, because it was technically a new company, it had never even made the toxic substances in question.
In 2019, Chemours, deep in debt, sued DuPont. Chemours contended that the spinoff was conceived to get DuPont off the hook for its decades of pollution. According to the complaint, DuPont executives decided against a $60 million project that would have stopped Fayetteville Works from discharging chemicals into the Cape Fear River. Instead, DuPont executives made a $2 million change, which they abandoned shortly before they announced the Chemours spinoff.
The lawsuit asked, “Why bother spending money to fix the problem, DuPont apparently reasoned, when it could be conveniently passed on to Chemours?”
DuPont said the suit was without merit.
Corporate Talking Points
Hardly anyone in the vicinity of the Fayetteville factory knew about the company’s pollution until a Wednesday morning in 2017, when The Wilmington Star News reported that chemicals from the plant, which was 90 miles upstream, had contaminated the city’s drinking water.
The article highlighted the research of Detlef Knappe, an engineering professor and water-quality expert at North Carolina State University. He warned that the drinking water of more than 250,000 people in the region was contaminated with a cocktail of 17 PFAS compounds, including GenX. “It is one thing to say it is in the river, it is another thing to say it comes out of your tap,” Mr. Knappe said in a recent interview.
Frightened residents began organizing protests. Local politicians demanded answers.
Inside Chemours, executives rushed to come up with talking points to quell the crisis, according to interviews with former employees and court documents reviewed by The New York Times. The executives decided to say that the levels of GenX found in the drinking water were safe and that much of the pollution happened before Chemours was created.
Even some Chemours executives were skeptical about this strategy of deflection.
“Chemours poisoned people for years, and finally stepped up after they got caught,” Laura Korte, a global product manager at Chemours who previously worked at DuPont, texted a colleague as they strategized. (The message, which hasn’t been publicly reported, was unearthed during a lawsuit against Chemours and recounted to The Times.) “That is how it will spin.”
In an attempt to shape the story, Chemours sponsored studies that played down the hazards of GenX. Damian Shea, a professor at North Carolina State University, produced research for Chemours that claimed that North Carolina’s limits for GenX levels in the water were unnecessarily low. Mr. Shea later said at a public event that he would let his grandchildren drink the water.
A 2019 research report by a consulting firm, ToxStrategies, found that “GenX is unlikely to be a human carcinogen.” A conflict-of-interest disclosure at the end of the report notes that the research was “supported” by Chemours, which reviewed the report before it was published.
The next year, ToxStrategies released another study that found that liver damage in mice exposed to GenX had limited relevance to humans. The study’s authors presented their findings to regulators on behalf of Chemours.
The conclusions were out of line with the findings of independent scientists — and conflicted with the research that DuPont itself had flagged to the E.P.A. years earlier.
“Just as environmental groups fund research into compounds, so too do companies,” said Mr. Sueta, the Chemours spokesman. “Chemours has funded numerous studies into our compounds to further advance scientific understanding.”
‘I Buried My Son’
After the uproar caused by the Star News article, Chemours met with local officials in June 2017. Executives conceded that GenX had been escaping into the Cape Fear River since 1980, despite previous promises to the E.P.A. that the discharges wouldn’t happen. But the executives insisted that Chemours had “extensive health and safety data for GenX” and that “the water is safe.”
“Just because something is present doesn’t mean it’s going to cause harm,” said Kathy O’Keefe, the company’s product sustainability director, according to the notes of a Star News reporter who attended the meeting. “When you cook brussels sprouts, did you know you release formaldehyde?” she added
More damaging revelations soon emerged. State regulators discovered that GenX from the Fayetteville plant had leached into the groundwater and escaped into the air. Researchers from Stockholm University published the results of a study on rodents, which suggested that GenX was even more toxic than PFOA.
Then, on a balmy summer evening in 2018, a couple hundred people crammed into the Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C., not far from the factory, for a meeting with Chemours executives.
Residents were angry — one woman was dressed as the Grim Reaper, while others held protest signs — and the company took precautions. People had to pass through a metal detector. Sheriffs were on hand because employees had received threats of violence, according to Mr. Sueta, the Chemours spokesman.
Mr. Long, then the manager of Fayetteville Works, sought to pacify the angry crowd. He argued that Chemours believed “in doing the right thing.” He said he couldn’t speak to what DuPont had done in the past.
“I can’t represent and don’t represent the DuPont company,” said Mr. Long, who had previously worked at DuPont for 14 years. “I do represent the Chemours company, and I can tell you we are a different company.”
Someone asked whether Mr. Long lived within the contamination zone. “No, I do not,” he said. When he added that he wished that his family did live there, the crowd jeered.
“Do you want me to feel sorry for you?” yelled Beth Markesino, who lives in Wilmington. “There are people sick here.”
When Ms. Markesino was 24 weeks pregnant, she gave birth via cesarean section because of problems with the placenta. Her son had failed to develop a kidney or bladder — problems linked to PFAS contamination — and died shortly after birth. Ms. Markesino suspects that the water she drank during her pregnancy, which was contaminated with PFAS, was to blame.
“I buried my son,” she cried.
As the crowd protested, sheriffs escorted her out of the church.
A Toxic Paradise
Last year, a Delaware court dismissed Chemours’s lawsuit against DuPont. Months later, in January 2021, DuPont, Chemours and Corteva agreed to split the costs of future litigation and cleanups related to PFAS pollution that occurred before 2015.
The chief executives of the three companies issued a joint statement: “The agreement will provide a measure of security and certainty for each company and our respective shareholders.”
The same couldn’t be said for the communities affected by the pollution.
In 2019, Mr. Regan, then the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, signed an order that required Fayetteville Works to drastically reduce the amount of PFAS and GenX it was releasing into the ground, air and water. Mr. Regan, now the E.P.A. administrator, required Chemours to install new filtration systems and to provide thousands of nearby residents with bottled water or filters for their faucets.
Yet despite the upgraded plant and new technologies at Fayetteville Works, Chemours remains unable to stop the pollution. Short of halting the production of PFAS, it’s unclear what a system to completely stop the discharge of chemicals — not to mention to clean up the existing contamination — would even look like.
Last fall, the state’s attorney general, Josh Stein, sued Chemours and DuPont, accusing the companies of polluting the state with chemicals they knew were dangerous and of deploying a “fraudulent scheme” — a “shell game” — to shirk accountability.
“DuPont attempted to dump its liabilities on Chemours, just as it dumped GenX and other forever chemicals into the Cape Fear River,” Mr. Stein said in an interview.
The lawsuit seeks to void the spinoff of Chemours and make the companies pay to clean up the pollution.
In response to the suit, Chemours argued that the statute of limitations had expired and that the company had no duty to warn the government or the public about the release of PFAS. DuPont argued that Chemours — “an entirely different company” — had taken on all PFAS-related costs and that DuPont didn’t exist in its current state until after 2015.
While that suit and others brought by residents, utilities and municipalities wind through the court system, Fayetteville residents are living in fear. (The companies declined to comment on allegations from people who believe they were harmed by the chemicals.)
Carrol Olinger, a retired teacher, will no longer drink water from her faucet, which she blames for the autoimmune disease that has forced her to rely on a walker. Janice Burton, who works at the U.S. Army’s nearby Fort Bragg base, spent $30,000 installing a swimming pool that she won’t enter for fear of being poisoned.
Debra Stewart, a nurse at the local emergency room, lives on a property with a contaminated well. She faults the chemicals for growths on her thyroid and colon, as well as the premature deaths of several horses and her prized hog, Wilbur.
“When I moved out here it was like paradise,” she said. “Now we’re sitting on top of a toxic lake.”
Alain Delaquérière and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
A correction was made on Oct. 20, 2021: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Beth Markesino’s loss of her infant son. He died shortly after being born in a cesarean section; Ms. Markesino did not have a miscarriage. The error was repeated in a picture caption.