Secrets, denials and toxic water: The story behind the GenX crisis

2018-03-25 | The Fayetteville Observer

March 25--Thirty-four years ago, an employee from a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, filled a jug with tap water from a little general store just across the Ohio River called Mason's Village Market.

An internal DuPont document shows that the company was secretly testing the water for ammonium perfluorooctanoate -- better known as C8. DuPont employees also took samples from stores in eight other unsuspecting communities in the Ohio River Valley.

The document shows C8 was detected at three stores closest to the plant, including Mason's Village Market in Little Hocking, Ohio. It also shows that, at one of those stores, the level of C8 measured more than 20 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today considers safe for drinking water.

DuPont conducted more tests around the sprawling Washington Works plant but never told anyone about its findings. It just continued as it had since 1951, using C8 to keep Teflon and other slippery coatings from clumping during the manufacturing process and pouring the waste into the Ohio River or allowing it to escape from smokestacks.

Residents of Little Hocking, Lubeck and Washington kept right on with their daily lives, too, drinking tap water laced with a chemical that DuPont knew back then caused diseases in laboratory animals. Today, C8 is considered a probable cause of kidney and testicular cancer in humans, as well as other diseases.

It wasn't until about 2002 -- 18 years later -- that Little Hocking residents and thousands of other people living near the DuPont plant would learn that C8 had contaminated their drinking water.

Melinda McDowell, whose tap water comes from the Little Hocking Water Authority, was one of them. She has lived in a small Ohio town about 10 miles north of the plant for about 25 years.

"I was feeding that to my child, to my babies," said McDowell, who is 61. "As a mom, I'm mad as hell.''

In so many ways, the environmental crisis in the Ohio River Valley is now playing out in southeastern North Carolina, where DuPont made C8 at its Fayetteville Works plant from 2002 to around 2009, when it began to switch for environmental and health reasons to a closely related compound called GenX.

Last June, news broke in the Wilmington Star-News that GenX had contaminated the Cape Fear River and the drinking water for an estimated 250,000 people from Cumberland County to the coast. Researchers found not only GenX, but an entire stew of unregulated perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds, some with much higher concentrations than GenX.

Tests performed on 748 private wells surrounding the Fayetteville Works plant found more than 190 with levels of GenX exceeding what the state now considers safe to drink.

Many people have since switched to bottled water while scientists scramble to determine whether GenX and the other contaminants can be effectively filtered out of drinking water, and state and federal regulators continue to take action against Chemours to stop further contamination. Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015.

Residents have responded by joining newly filed class-action lawsuits that say DuPont and Chemours misled and deceived environmental regulators and the North Carolina public.

One suit filed in October accuses the companies of stating on permit applications that any wastes containing perfluorinated compounds, such as GenX, would be taken off site and incinerated or buried in landfills. Instead, much of that waste was released into the Cape Fear River or into the air, the lawsuit says.

"Defendants' lies about the way they were disposing of GenX were particularly harmful," the lawsuit says, "because neither state nor local water providers knew that Defendants were discharging GenX into the local water supply, they could not and did not design water filters to keep families from drinking that poison."

The suit alleges that DuPont and Chemours knew from DuPont's own research that the chemicals they released were "extremely dangerous" but continued to do so anyway, "simply to avoid the expense of taking safety precautions."

Chemours did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But the company contends that it has abided by a 2009 consent order with the EPA that requires it to capture 99 percent of the GenX it produces. At a meeting last year, a Chemours official said the GenX found in the Cape Fear River is an unregulated byproduct from the manufacture of polyvinyl ethers produced since 1980. State-issued discharge permits allowed DuPont and Chemours to pour the byproducts into the water after treatment. The company has maintained for years that GenX and C8 are not harmful to humans.

State regulators say DuPont and Chemours failed to disclose the chemical compounds in its wastewater. In September, the state Department of Environmental Quality filed a civil complaint threatening to revoke Chemours' permit if it didn't stop discharging perfluorinated chemicals.

GenX is the chemical making the headlines now, but there are potentially thousands of other so-called unregulated "emerging contaminants," some of which are showing up in drinking water downstream of the Chemours plant. Little is known about the potential health effects of GenX, other than it has shown to cause disease in laboratory animals. Even less is known about other emerging contaminants.

Much more is known about C8 -- the father of GenX -- largely because of nearly 20 years of litigation against DuPont and Chemours in the Ohio River Valley. The EPA now calls C8 a "suggestive" carcinogen.

There is no evidence to support that people living in North Carolina have been harmed by C8. Although C8 has been detected in monitoring wells at the Fayetteville Works plant, which straddles the Bladen-Cumberland county line just off N.C. 87, tests on private wells beyond the plant's property have not exceeded federal drinking water standards.

----It's a different story in the Ohio River Valley, where a study commissioned by DuPont in 2004 found that the company had released more than 1.7 million pounds of C8 into the water, air and soil at its Washington Works plant between 1951 and 2003.

A panel of scientists who studied the health effects of about 70,000 people in the valley concluded that there is a probable link between C8 and kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis and three other diseases.

One of McDowell's sons, now a college student, suffers from ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that causes ulcers in the intestines. McDowell won't speculate on whether C8 caused the disease, but she doesn't rule it out, either.

"The whole concept is crazy," said McDowell, a retired University of Ohio computer programming analyst. "They should be able to prove it is not going to hurt anyone before they put it in the air or the water. They just create something and spew it out in the environment, and people are dying."

AUDIO: Melinda McDowell

After the C8 contamination from the Washington Works site became public in 2001, DuPont gave McDowell and thousands of other people bottled water until it finished installing granular carbon-activated filtration systems on the public water utilities, which effectively removed the C8.

But now McDowell and her neighbors may be facing a new problem. In February, GenX was found in four West Virginia wells. Officials are testing public drinking water there and in Ohio to determine whether the filters are removing GenX. Test results are expected soon.

Researchers say the filtration systems used for water supplies in Wilmington, Brunswick and Pender counties don't remove GenX.

"I'm furious," McDowell said. "DuPont can go to hell. They are hurting children, and people... You can't put a price on killing people, and now we are going to make another chemical?

"There is C8, and now there is GenX, and God only knows what they will put in there tomorrow."

TIMELINE: C8 and GenX health advisories

DuPont, Chemours and Japan-based Kararay now occupy the Washington Works plant in West Virginia and the Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County. Both sites also share similar surroundings. They lie in rural, relatively poor areas bordered by large, meandering rivers. The companies pay high wages -- more than double the average salary of about $30,000 in Bladen County. They've pumped millions of dollars into their local communities; Fayetteville Works generates more than $1 million in annual revenue for Bladen County.

The Ohio River Valley is home to families who have lived there for generations. For many, their grandparents and parents worked for DuPont before they did. They have developed a fierce sense of allegiance to the company, McDowell said.

"They'll stick by (DuPont) from now on," she said.

Though the Fayetteville Works plant began operations in 1971, its employees also seem loyal. DuPont, and now Chemours, have been the lifeblood for about 900 people who work at the 2,150-acre plant. Many employees won't talk to reporters.

A woman whose well is contaminated with GenX in Bladen County declined to give her name because her husband works for Chemours. He "fully believes in the sincerity of Chemours to address this crisis," she said, but adding: "The silence of Chemours is deafening."

Shortly after the public in Wilmington learned that GenX was in their drinking water, Chemours officials attended meetings and tried to give reassurances. Now, after lawsuit upon lawsuit, the company appears to have gone dark. Its corporate spokesman in Bladen County left his position. A website now directs media inquires to an email address.

That leaves little other than a history lesson and thousands of internal DuPont documents to begin to understand the lengths the company has taken to conceal its knowledge that the chemicals it was discharging into the Ohio and Cape Fear rivers are potentially dangerous.

----Court documents show that DuPont scientists issued internal warnings about C8 as early as 1961, after finding that rats and rabbits fed the compound developed enlarged livers.

By the 1970s, DuPont and its supplier of C8, the 3M Co., had hired scientists to conduct research on laboratory animals.

A study conducted in 1977 for 3M found that albino rats given high doses of C8 died, while lower doses caused enlarged livers and lesions, kidney abnormalities and weight loss.

A study for 3M in 1978 on rhesus monkeys found that the animals died from high doses of C8. At lower doses, the monkeys showed weight loss and signs of toxicity in the gastrointestinal tract, as well as "pale face and gums, swollen face and eyes, slight to severe decreased activity and prostration."

An internal DuPont document from 1981 marked "personal and confidential, C8 blood sampling results" shows that DuPont monitored seven women employees at its Washington Works plant who had recently given birth. Of those seven, two babies had birth defects -- one an "unconfirmed" eye and tear duct defect and the other a nostril and eye defect. The same year, DuPont reassigned 50 women to other areas of the plant, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, DuPont and 3M commissioned dozens of other health studies on C8 using mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, fish and monkeys. By 1993, tests showed a link between testicular, pancreatic and liver cancer in the lab animals.

DuPont continues to maintain that there is no evidence indicating C8 is harmful to humans.

The 3M Co. began to see the problems differently. Under increasing EPA pressure, 3M announced in 2000 that it would phase out the manufacture of C8. The company, the only manufacturer of C8 in the nation at the time, said its decision was based "on its commitment to responsible environmental management and sound business principles."

DuPont initially began looking for an alternative to C8. Joe DeSimone, a scientist and entrepreneur who lived in North Carolina, gave DuPont an exclusive license for a process he had invented that promised to replace C8 with a much more environmentally friendly substitute that did not produce chemical wastes, according to a report by North Carolina Health News.

DuPont decided not to go that route. The products made from C8 were creating billions of dollars in profits. They are used in everything from nonstick pans and stain-resistant carpets to food packages and rain gear.

Instead, DuPont finished building a $23 million addition to its Fayetteville Works plant and, in the fall of 2002, began making C8 there.

Within three months, C8 was found to have leaked into the groundwater under the plant. DuPont officials never told the public at that time. They said later that the C8 entered the groundwater from another area of the plant.

AUDIO: Ohio environmental lawyer David Altman

Back in West Virginia in the mid-1990s, Wilbur Tennant's cows kept dying on a family farm near the Washington Works plant. Years earlier, Tennant's brother and wife had sold 66 acres of the farm to DuPont for use as a landfill. The company gave assurances that the landfill would hold only non-toxic materials.

Not long after the landfill began operating, cows started dying and members of the Tennant family grew sick. Tennant suspected that whatever DuPont was putting in the landfill was toxic to his cattle.

In 1999, Tennant met with Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who had spent much of his career defending chemical companies, including DuPont.

Bilott had connections to the Parkersburg area. His grandmother lived there, and he had played on property neighboring the Tennants' farm as a child. At Bilott's urging, his firm of Taft Stettinius Hollister accepted the case. It filed a federal lawsuit against DuPont in 1999.

Bilott spent a year on the case, never connecting the landfill to the dead cows until he stumbled on a document that mentioned a compound listed as PFOA in Dry Run Creek near the landfill. Bilott was unfamiliar with the substance.

At Bilott's request, a judge ordered DuPont to disclose all internal records regarding PFOA. DuPont turned over more than 100,000 documents.

According to one of those documents, Bilott's inquiry created a panic inside DuPont's Delaware headquarters.

"The (expletive) is about to hit the fan in WV," the company's lawyer, Bernard J. Reilly, wrote in an email to a colleague. "The lawyer for the farmer finally realizes the surfactant (C8) issue. He is threatening to go to the press to embarrass us to pressure us to settle for big bucks. (Expletive) him."

According to Huffington Post, the documents revealed that DuPont had used the property it bought from the Tennants as part of a coverup. After C8 was discovered in the water supply for Lubeck -- one of the towns where tap water was secretly tested from a store in 1984 -- DuPont removed 14 million pounds of C8-laced sludge from unlined pits near the town's wells and dumped it into its new landfill.

DuPont settled the lawsuit with the Tennants for an undisclosed sum in 2000. The following year, Bilott filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 70,000 people, many of whom drew water from six public utility districts near the Washington Works plant.

But Bilott faced a problem. For one thing, C8 was not a federally regulated compound, and there was no federally established threshold for what was considered safe. The best Bilott had was an internal DuPont document showing that the company had set its own "community exposure guideline" for drinking water at 1 part per billion.

That standard wouldn't last long. When DuPont learned that Bilott was preparing a new lawsuit, Huffington Post reported, the company announced that it would re-evaluate the figure for safe drinking water. DuPont formed a team of its own scientists as well as those from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The team came up with a new safety threshold of 150 parts per billion.

Still, Bilott had thousands of internal DuPont documents and hundreds of people who alleged to have gotten sick from drinking or breathing C8.

By 2002, he also had an EPA temporary threshold for C8 of 14 parts per billion. That health level, announced in a consent order, noted that sufficient doses of C8 is toxic to animals and "is persistent in humans and the environment." C8 is bioaccumulative, meaning it continues to build up in the body and in plants.

By September 2004, DuPont settled the class-action lawsuit for up to $374 million. DuPont agreed to install filtration systems at the contaminated water districts and put $70 million into a health and education project. It also agreed to fund a $30 million study to evaluate the health effects of C8.

Bilott used some of the settlement money to set up an independent scientific panel called the C8 Health Project to evaluate people who had joined the lawsuit.

In 2012, after evaluating the health of thousands of people, the panel came back with its conclusions: C8 is likely to cause kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

Those findings gave Bilott the ammunition he needed. In February 2017, DuPont and Chemours agreed to settle lawsuits in Ohio and West Virginia for an estimated 3,500 people. The settlement was for $675 million for the release of C8 into the ground, air and water around the Washington Works plant.

Four months after the settlement, news would break in North Carolina that the companies had contaminated the Cape Fear River -- and drinking water for more than 250,000 people -- with a compound called GenX.

DuPont never accepted the science panel's conclusion that C8 probably causes cancer, and it continues to maintain that the compound has never harmed anyone.

Last month, Chemours CEO Mark Vergnanon told shareholders that he has heard "community concerns" in North Carolina but believes discharges of GenX and related substances from its Fayetteville Works plant have not "adversely impacted anyone's health."

Bilott has heard that many times before.

"It's like the same pattern starting all over again and the refrain of no evidence of human health effects," Bilott said.

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at gbarnes@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3525.