Jobs vs. health
PARKERSBURG, W. Va. – No one in the Mid-Ohio Valley ever wanted to sue DuPont.
The company employs thousands in the region and supports charities and community organizations. In some families, multiple generations owe their livelihood to the Delaware-based chemical giant.
But as livestock started dying and thousands of residents contracted unexplained illnesses, evidence pointed to pollution from DuPont manufacturing as the cause – pitting the community’s health against the area’s already struggling economy.
“A guy called my wife and asked, ‘If I lose my job are you going to pay for my wife and kids?'” said Joe Kiger, a Parkersburg, West Virginia, school teacher and the lead plaintiff in the 2001 class-action lawsuit against DuPont over high levels of the toxic chemical C8 in the region’s water supplies.
C8 is the chemical behind DuPont’s powerhouse product Teflon, used on nonstick cookware worldwide. Studies have shown that nearly every person on earth has at least traces of C8 in their bloodstream. But in 2005 around Parkersburg, about 2 miles from DuPont’s Washington Works manufacturing plant, residents’ blood levels registered far above Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for C8.
The company now faces 3,500 lawsuits filed in Federal Court by Mid-Ohio Valley residents in a 185-square-mile area around Parkersburg. They claim DuPont’s release of C8 into the air, ground and water is responsible for their illnesses. Regulatory filings show DuPont’s liability could exceed $1 billion.
Between 1951 and 2003, the Washington Works plant dumped, poured and released more than 1.7 million pounds of C8, according to a 2004 study by ChemRisk Inc., an industry risk assessor hired by DuPont to determine how much of the chemical had been released into the environment.
That study discovered 632,468 pounds of the chemical traveled through Washington Works outflow pipes into the Ohio River, where C8 moved upstream, downstream and found its way into tributaries.
Another 394,486 pounds was transported via truck to three unlined landfills, where it was buried in the ground. The material leeched into the soils, contaminating wells and groundwater.
The largest amount, 686,223 pounds, was forced through smokestacks into the air, where it was breathed in by area residents and settled on their skin. The powdery smoke also landed on crops and in water supplies.
ChemRisk President Dennis J. Paustenbach, who has won multiple awards for his research, and three of its scientists – Julie M. Panko, Paul K. Scott, and Kenneth M. Unice, who have a combined 61 years of health, risk and exposure study experience – conducted the DuPont-funded report.
Their work was later given to the C8 Science Panel, a team of researchers who performed health studies on Mid-Ohio Valley residents in the release zone around Parkersburg between 2005 and 2013. It was created as part of the settlement in a class-action lawsuit against DuPont.
DuPont doesn’t deny that C8, or PFOA, is dangerous to humans. But the company points out, through spokesman Dan Turner, that industry knowledge of the chemical on the environment and worker health has slowly evolved over the past 60 years – and DuPont was a leader in creating guidelines to protect staff.
“While federal and state environmental authorities never established regulations on the use, handling, emissions or disposal of PFOA, DuPont set extremely conservative exposure guidelines to guard against harm,” he said. “DuPont took more precautions in the use and handling of PFOA than any other company.”
Early tests conducted on the chemical revealed health issues in animals, but humans were not included in the studies. Once DuPont understood C8’s effects, Turner said, it completely phased out its use of the chemical, a process completed in 2013.
By then, though, a lot of people were ill along the Ohio River, and battle lines had hardened over whether DuPont was culpable. And that fight continues today.
On one side are residents suffering from illnesses such as kidney and testicular cancer, liver disease, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and heart problems. On the other side are those who claim the issue has been overblown by plaintiffs’ attorneys looking to make a fortune by attacking the deep-pocketed company.
Those fighting serious illnesses allege DuPont knowingly covered up the danger of C8, pointing to a November 1982 memo in which Bruce Karrh, the company’s chief medical director, expressed concern over employees’ exposure. The company barred women of child-bearing age from working in the laboratory where they would come in contact with the chemical.
“My ex-husband was told not to launder his clothes with my daughter’s clothes,” Kiger’s wife, Darlene, said of her former spouse, who worked directly with C8. Darlene said her ex-husband received that warning from plant management as far back as the mid-1970s.
Those upset with neighbors suing DuPont contend that many plaintiffs were not exposed to C8 at levels high enough to develop cancer or other illnesses. Pollution from other chemical companies in the region also could have played an unknowing role in the illnesses.
“I believe in facts, and I believe that sometimes what the press lives and dies off of is headlines,” said Parkersburg Mayor Jimmy Colombo, who owns a popular downtown Italian restaurant. “There are people who have cancer treatments every day who are not involved in the stuff (C8) you are talking about.”
The region’s economic viability is at the center of the debate. At its height, DuPont employed roughly 2,000 workers at its Washington Works plant, roughly 6 miles south of Parkersburg. That number was reduced to around 1,200 prior to DuPont transferring the facility’s ownership to Chemours last July. For the first time in nearly 70 years, the iconic DuPont sign no longer greets workers and visitors.
Colombo says the C8 controversy has cost the region. In 2003, frozen foods company Luigino’s proposed a $36 million plant at the Parkersburg Business Park that would have created 600 new jobs. Colombo and former Mayor Bob Newell said the company dropped out over fears that competitors would use the area’s environmental issues to discourage consumers from buying food packaged in a polluted area. Minnesota-based Luigino’s did not return calls seeking comment.
U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus, of the Southern District of Ohio, is the sole jurist assigned to handle the litigation. Under a scheduling order issued by Sargus, the court will hear 40 cases annually – meaning it will take 90 years to resolve all cases.
DuPont has settled three lawsuits, two for undisclosed amounts and a third, class-action lawsuit for $70 million. In another case, a woman who developed kidney cancer won a $1.6 million judgment that the company is appealing.
Now involved in a $130 billion merger with Dow Chemical Co., DuPont has an indemnification agreement with its performance chemical spinoff, Chemours, under which Chemours is responsible for any damages DuPont incurs in the C8 litigation.
However, Chemours, which occupies DuPont’s former headquarters in downtown Wilmington, has shed jobs and seen its stock price plummet since becoming an independent company last summer. That has raised questions about whether it can absorb the liability.
The company first came to West Virginia in 1948, attracted by the region’s industrious workforce and access the Ohio River would give it to ports throughout the country. A decade earlier, Roy J. Plunkett, a DuPont chemist based in the company’s Salem, New Jersey, plant was experimenting with refrigerants and discovered an inert fluorocarbon that had nonstick and stain-resistant qualities. The company patented the substance in 1945 under the trademark “Teflon.” It was used to coat cookware and quickly became a hit, with annual sales in 2007 reaching $1 billion.
Washington Works quickly became the world’s largest producer of Teflon, manufacturing nearly 2 million pounds of the product in its first year of operation.
In 1951, DuPont also began purchasing C8, known as perfluoroctaonic acid, or PFOA, from Minnesota Manufacturing & Mining, which now operates as 3M. The chemical, which resembles laundry soap, possessed better nonstick qualities and flattened bulges that occurred during Teflon manufacturing. It soon became widely popular, used in hundreds of products including fast-food wrappers, waterproof clothing, microwaveable popcorn bags and pizza boxes.
DuPont began studying the health effects of C8 in the 1950s, but those tests were kept secret, according to documents released as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into DuPont. In the early 1960s, DuPont scientists found the chemical increased the size of livers in rats, rabbits and dogs. By the 1980s, a 3M study discovered C8 caused birth defects in rats. 3M shared the study with DuPont, and began to phase out the use of C8 by 2002.
Yet some of those involved in the lawsuits allege DuPont did not notify its workers or change its safety procedures.
“3M was making millions (of dollars) off this stuff, but DuPont was making billions,” said Harry Deitzler, a Parkersburg attorney and local counsel suing DuPont.
The company continued to secretly test its Washington Works employees over decades, often uncovering disturbing health issues found in blood samples. In Karrh’s November 1982 memo, he wrote that worker exposure to the chemical should be limited, according to documents uncovered in a class action lawsuit, Leach v. DuPont.
To qualify as a member of the class action, an individual must have drank contaminated water for at least one year prior to Dec. 4, 2004, from one of the six named water districts or a specified private well contaminated with C8. DuPont spent $70 million to settle the case in 2005.
Shortly after the Leach settlement, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for not reporting the health risks related to C8 exposure. At the time, it was the largest civil penalty ever levied by the agency.
Turner denied DuPont withheld information about health issues related to C8 from its employees.
“In the 1970s when DuPont first learned that PFOA was persistent in the bodies of the 3M workers, our leaders took reasonable actions to inform and protect employees, to understand the available science regarding potential health effects in animals and people, to seek guidance from knowledgeable third party experts and to engage regulators,” the company spokesman said.
In 2006, DuPont became one of eight companies vowing to reduce PFOA manufacturing emissions by 95 percent within four years and eliminate its use completely in less than a decade.
Paul Brooks, a physician who oversaw the blood tests for thousands of Mid-Ohio Valley residents, said C8 is unique because it attaches itself to blood proteins and travels through, and attacks, every organ in the body. According to Brooks, it damages the thyroid in the endocrine system; harms the digestive system causing ulcerative colitis; impacts the reproductive system causing preeclampsic hypertension in women and testicular cancer in men; and attacks the urinary system causing kidney cancer.
“Scientifically, most of the time when you get something that effects the body, like asbestos, it only affects one or two things,” he said.
Another series of secret DuPont tests conducted in 1984 found high levels of C8 in tap water of the Little Hocking Water Association just across the Ohio River from the Washington Works plant. DuPont continued the tests through 1989, but never informed the community or state regulators, according to internal corporate documents that came out as part of discovery during the Leach trial. DuPont assumed one part per billion was safe – but Little Hocking’s PFOA levels were three times that number.
Dust containing C8 released from the facilities’ chimney stacks was found well beyond the Washington Work’s property, according to the C8 Science Panel created under the Leach settlement.
Jim Tennant, a former construction worker at DuPont, said he has suffered from mysterious illnesses since the 1960s. Shortly after starting at DuPont in 1964, Tennant said, he would randomly get flu-like systems, including cold and clammy hands, and drops in blood pressure, respiration and temperature. Doctors were baffled.
In 1979, Tennant was hospitalized. Doctors couldn’t identify the cause, and warned his wife Della that he might not make it through the night.
By the mid-1990s, Jim and Della began noticing dead birds and deer on their farm. Cattle developed large tumors, went blind or gave birth to deformed and stillborn calves. Jim Tennant said the normal mortality rate for newborn cattle was around 5 percent, but at times, 100 percent of the herd’s newborn calves died. In total, Jim estimates the family lost roughly 250 cows.
And there was a strange silence on the property.
“You couldn’t even hear a bird chirp,” Della Tennant said. “Everything was dead.”
The Tennants suspected the Dry Run landfill, a 66-acre DuPont dump site less than 250 feet from their back door.
In 1980, DuPont first approached the couple with an offer to buy their farm to turn it into a landfill. The family resisted, but as Jim’s medical bills mounted the Tennants in 1983 finally relented, and sold a portion of their 600-acre farmstead to DuPont. Della said DuPont assured the couple it would create a Class II landfill on their former property, meaning it would not contain hazardous materials. At the time, the company provided a document assuring them only scrap metal, scrap lumber and cafeteria garbage would be sent to the landfill, Jim said.
But the dead and malformed animals kept piling up, and the Tennants wanted to sue DuPont for damages. Conditions got so bad the couple had to stop farming.
The Tennants’ efforts to retain legal counsel in the Parkersburg area were unsuccessful. Local attorneys said they didn’t have the clout to sue the Fortune 500 company. And as word spread about the Tennants’ plans, neighbors began to fight back. When the family walked into restaurants, Della said, other citizens would walk out. Longtime friends stopped speaking with them at church, and the Tennants had to change their place of worship more than once.
“People accused us of trying to get DuPont to shut down,” she said. “But we weren’t trying to get DuPont to shut down. We were trying to get them to clean up their mess.”
Things changed dramatically when attorney Rob Bilott, moved by their plight, agreed to take the case. Recommended by a family friend, Bilott, an environmental attorney with the Cincinnati firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, made his reputation as a corporate lawyer who defended companies against environmental charges brought by people like the Tennants.
But as soon as he heard their story, he signed on.
Earl Botkin lives in Evans, West Virginia, a small town about 45 miles downriver from the Washington Works plant. Botkin says he was a healthy man of 55 in 1997 when he began to experience thyroid problems, and soon contracted ulcerative colitis – a form of explosive diarrhea – and high cholesterol.
The C8 Health Panel, which tested 69,000 residents in the area, linked all three illnesses to exposure to the chemical. Botkin believes his health problems stemmed from consuming tap water tainted with C8, which allegedly found its way into the municipal water system of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, which at the time supplied water to Evans. Botkin’s wife, Gwen, does not have any illnesses associated with C8 exposure.
DuPont has said it will not challenge the supposition that drinking water tainted with high levels of C8 can cause ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems and a host of other illnesses. But DuPont will challenge specific cases brought by plaintiffs like Botkin, who consumed water from a system that was not part of the $70 million settlement awarding sophisticated water filtration systems for six municipalities.
Botkin says his life is hell. His days begin at 4 a.m. with coffee and a piece of toast. He needs to eat early so he can digest his food, go to the bathroom and be at work by 8:00 a.m. Botkin eats only a small snack during the day to limit his trips to the bathroom. His big daily meal is dinnertime, and he takes it at home where he has immediate access to a bathroom.
He takes eight steroids a day to stop the bleeding, which makes his face and stomach puffy but does little to help him manage the disease.
The Botkins rarely leave home for fear of having an embarrassing episode outside the home. If he does go out, he must take precautions and scout ahead for a clean bathroom.
Botkin has kept his job as a home inspector because he needs the insurance to cover the cost of his medicine. He says the multiple diseases has made it impossible for him to visit his three children who have relocated to other parts of the country.
“They really ruined us,” Botkin said. “We had nice jobs and were about to retire. We had plans.”
James Peterson, of Glenville, West Virginia, was a DuPont contractor who welded parts on trucks that transported waste from the Washington Works plant to the company’s two landfills, Dry Run and Letard. From 1983 until 1995, it was his job to fix broken axles and make other repairs. Often, the C8 waste would still be on the truck while he was fixing it.
James Peterson checks on his home hemodialysis machine
On three occasions, Peterson contracted what is locally referred to as “the Teflon flu” – fever, chills, headaches and coughs that comes from breathing fumes released from C8.
“I was sicker than a dog,” he said. “I just shook like I had the DTs (delirium tremens normally associated with alcoholism.)”
When Peterson turned 59, he began to suffer heart attacks, which plaintiffs attorneys say is normal for people exposed to C8 because it triggers extraordinarily high levels of cholesterol. In 2001, he had a quintuple bypass and a stent inserted. Six years later, he underwent a sextuple bypass.
Although Peterson has insurance, he says his medical bills were so high he had to sell his two-story house to pay for his care. Today he lives in a trailer, and one of his bedrooms is consumed by medical supplies.
Arteries that flow blood to his kidneys have closed, causing renal damage. Peterson also has a dialysis machine at home, which he is tethered to daily.
“I would not be in this shape had I not breathed in that stuff and worked at the landfill,” he said.