Sunday Nov 19

Everybody's Business: A Chemical Industry Marriage Not Made in Heaven

A corporation once known as the Merchant of Death because it dominated the gunpowder market has united with a company that became notorious for its production of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical into DowDuPont is not a marriage made in heaven.

The more recent track records of the two chemical giants are also seriously tarnished, raising questions as to whether the merger and planned spinoff of some operations is really a ploy to evade liability -- something each of the companies has done in the past.

DuPont’s feel-good postwar campaign promoting “better living through chemistry” gave way to a series of environmental controversies. In the 1970s and 1980s the issue was the company’s production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) like Freon, which were destroying the earth’s ozone layer. After resisting for years, DuPont finally agreed to phase out production of CFCs but sought to use substitutes that were also harmful.

In 1989 evidence emerged that the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, which DuPont had built and operated for the federal government since 1951, had serious structural flaws and safety problems that the company failed to report. Numerous accidents at the South Carolina facility, which made plutonium and the tritium gas needed in nuclear warheads, were also kept secret.

DuPont was a pioneer in developing perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), one of the most highly toxic and likely carcinogenic group of chemicals that work their way into the bloodstream of humans and wildlife. DuPont’s highest profile PFC-based product is Teflon, best known for its use in non-stick cookware. In 2004 the EPA charged that for two decades DuPont failed to report signs of health and environmental problems linked to perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), the PFC used in making Teflon. Residents living near the plant in West Virginia where DuPont produced PFOA sued the company, which settled the case by agreeing to pay about $100 million and conduct ongoing medical monitoring of residents. DuPont also paid $16.5 million to settle the EPA charges and later agreed to gradually phase out PFOA.

In 2014 a leak of methyl mercaptan (used in the production of pesticides) at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas caused the death of four workers. In July 2015 OSHA proposed fines of $273,000 in connection with the accident and put DuPont on its severe violator list.

In 2015 DuPont spun off numerous facilities with tainted environmental and safety records into a new company called Chemours. DuPont’s initial SEC filing about Chemours disclosed that the new company would begin life with some $298 million in environmental liabilities but acknowledged that the total could rise to 3.5 times that amount.

Dow Chemical was involved in one of the most controversial cases of liability evasion: its decision to do nothing for the victims of the Bhopal disaster after acquiring Union Carbide, the company whose subsidiary operated the pesticide plant in India where in 1984 a vast quantity of highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas was released. More than 8,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and many thousands more suffered serious harms from exposure to the gas, including genetic damage that affected their offspring.`

Union Carbide paid compensation of $470 million, far below what many advocates felt was necessary to care for the victims. After the merger, Bhopal advocates began to pressure Dow to do more, but the company insisted that it had not assumed Union Carbide’s liabilities and thus had no responsibility to help.

Dow’s sins are not all inherited. In the 1980s its Dow Corning subsidiary was hit with class action lawsuits filed by women claiming that they had developed autoimmune diseases as a result of silicone leakage from breast implants produced by the company. In 1992, following a review of Dow Corning internal company documents suggesting that the implants had been rushed to market without complete safety tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called for a moratorium on new implants. The New York Times reported that the documents revealed that Dow Corning executives had delayed conducting critical safety studies for more than a decade.

In 2011 Dow had to pay $2.5 million to settle EPA allegations that the company’s complex in Midland, Michigan violated the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in a host of ways at its chemical, pharmaceutical, and pesticide plants.

Given the histories of these two companies, the new DowDuPont entity deserves the utmost scrutiny.

Philip Mattera heads the Corporate Research Project in Washington, DC, and writes the blog Dirt Diggers Digest.

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