DuPont’s Disgraceful Deeds: The Environmental Record of E.I. DuPont de Nemour

Jack Doyle
Multinational Monitor
October 1, 1990

The television commerical could easily be mistaken for a pitch to join an environmental organization. It features barking sea lions, playful otters, jumping dolphins, waddling penguins. The world as seen through the camera lens is clean and fresh, brilliant and invigorating. With a full orchestral score of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy welling up in the background, the feeling is overwhelmingly buoyant.

As the 30-second spot opens, we look out across a coastal shoreline to the distant horizon where sea meets sky. There, barely visible in the late afternoon light, is a tiny sliver of a ship.

“Recently,” intones the narrator, as a lone sea lion looks out toward the ship from its perch on the rocky shore, “Du Pont announced that its energy unit would pioneer the use of double- hulled oil tankers [pause] … in order to safeguard the environment.”

Up comes the triumphant Beethoven score as a sequence of shrewdly anthropomorphized waterfowl and marine mammals appears on screen: happy ducks flapping their wings, ecstatic sea lions clapping their flippers, a blissful whale jumping for joy.

“The response …” continues the narrator, “has been overwhelmingly positive.”

On cue, frolicking dolphins flash past. Beethoven revs up again behind shots of more sea lions clapping, penguins flapping, a cloud of flamingos leaping into the sky, a trio of jumping dolphins. The spot ends with a crowd of sea lions applauding as the sun sets behind them.

Then the tag line of the ad familiarly known as “Applause” appears: Du Pont: Better Things for Better Living.

Du Pont’s Conoco division may deserve some applause for being the first big oil company to break with the Brotherhood of Oil by explicitly adopting a double-hull tanker policy, but even that should be tempered by recognition of numerous misrepresentations and omissions in the ad. While Conoco does plan to put two double-hulled tankers in the water in 1992, the rest of its six-ship fleet (one of the smallest in the industry) won’t be double-hulled until the year 2000. The ad fails to note that Conoco’s double-hull vessels will operate primarily (possibly exclusively) in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are no penguins–nor sea otters, seals or sea lions, all of which are explicitly depicted as the beneficiaries of Conoco’s double-hull policy. Nor does the ad mention the economic protection double- hull construction brings to Conoco: 80 percent of tanker accidents in the Gulf of Mexico involve side collisions or groundings (accidents in which double-hulls could help control damage), and the cost of double-hull construction is only 15 percent greater than building single-hulls.

Whatever credit Conoco deserves for its double-hull policy, Du Pont certainly does not deserve the warm and fuzzy environmental glow that the “Applause” advertisement bestows upon it. Du Pont’s environmental problems are too enormous, too far- reaching, too globally destructive to be hidden behind a few double-hulled oil tankers.

Corporate polluter No. 1

Du Pont is the single largest corporate polluter in the United States. In 1989, the latest year for which data are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Du Pont and its subsidiaries reported discharging more than 348 million pounds of pollutants to land, air and water. And Du Pont’s total reported discharge in 1989 was about 10 million pounds greater than in 1988.

Du Pont, in fact, produced more chemical pollution in 1989 than Allied-Signal, Ford Motor Co. and Union Carbide combined. Du Pont’s total reported pollution was 14 times that of Dow Chemical, 20 times that of Chrysler and 30 times that of Mobil– all companies that are themselves among the top 100 U.S. polluters.

Years of Du Pont waste disposal at numerous dump sites across the country are also becoming a problem. Du Pont and Conoco have been designated “potentially responsible parties” under the federal Superfund law and related state laws for liability and clean up of all or part of approximately 50 waste sites in 22 states.

Much of the company’s current waste is disposed of by deep-well injection. Du Pont leads all other companies in the use of this technique, injecting 254.9 million pounds of toxic wastes into underground geologic formations in 1989.

The operating premise of underground waste disposal is that a porous geological zone deep below the earth’s surface (2,500 to more than 10,000 feet down, far below any aquifer) is “sealed” above and below by impenetrable strata, and waste injected through a tubular well shaft to this porous zone will be safely contained within the formation for a very long time–10,000 years, according to EPA requirements.

But underground injection is an uncertain science at best. “Operators of injection wells may know where the wastes are injected,” a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment staff memorandum noted in 1983, “but they do not know with confidence where the wastes will ultimately end up…. [T]here is relatively little detailed information on the long-term effectiveness of injection wells to safely contain and isolate toxic wastes.” Thus far, the U.S. General Accounting Office reports, there have been at least 23 cases in which drinking water contamination is known to have been caused by deep-well-injected oil and gas wastes.

Du Pont has had operational problems with deep-well injection. For example, at the company’s Ingleside, Texas facility, there has been repeated plugging of the injection zone sands in four wells, reportedly caused by injection of unfiltered or incompatible wastes. Acid waste corrosion of well casings and weldings has also been reported at some of Du Pont’s Ingleside wells.

Pollution by design

A number of Du Pont’s products are themselves toxic and environmentally hazardous. One of the most indefensible is lead additive for gasoline [see “Poison Petrol: Leaded Gas Exports to the Third World,” Multinational Monitor, July/August 1991]. Though lead additive is banned in the United States, until recently the company produced it for export at its Chamber Works plant in New Jersey. That plant has been closed, but Du Pont continues to produce lead additives in Mexico–and exports them for sale throughout Latin America in partnership with Pemex, the Mexican national oil company.

The hazards of lead are widely recognized. The World Health Organization has concluded that chronic exposure to low levels of lead had been linked to reduced birth weight, impaired mental development and hearing and other childhood development problems. Dr. Herbert Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist who has studied the effects of lead on children for two decades, condemns the export of lead additives, “These kids’ brains are no different from American kids’ brains. We are exporting a brain poison that our country says is not safe.” Carl Hutter, Du Pont lead additives products manager, offers this response: “If we felt that this was a hazard to people, not only here but in any country, we wouldn’t export it. We don’t export hazards.”

In fact, the company may have exposed people in the United States to illegal levels of lead as well. In December 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in a U.S. District Court in New Jersey, seeking to collect $9.2 million from Du Pont for illegally blending excessively high levels of lead into gasoline between 1983 and 1985 at the company’s Carteret, New Jersey facility. According to Rich Kozlowski, EPA’s lead-standards enforcement chief, gasoline blends produced at the Carteret refinery contained lead levels up to four times higher than the permissible limit. The heavily leaded gasoline was sold throughout the Northeast United States.

Pesticides are another line of Du Pont products which are harmful to human health even when used as intended. Some of the most harmful effects of Du Pont’s pesticides occur in the Third
World, where the company markets several pesticides which have been removed from use in the United States and sold others without proper warnings. During Senate hearings on the export of pesticides in March 1990, for example, Senator Patrick Leahy, D- Vermont, chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, presented damaging evidence that Du Pont’s Benlate pesticide was being packaged without warning labels about the chemical’s potential health and safety effects. “I have a photo of a package of Benlate that was sent to Papua, New Guinea,” Leahy stated. “The EPA considers benomyl to be a possible human carcinogen and mutagen, and the packaging on the pesticide does violate the FAO [United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization] International Code of Conduct. It merely states a list of some [of Du Pont’s] products. It does not talk about the problems associated with benomyl.”

One of the most disturbing elements of the company’s agrochemical plans is its hope to market genetically engineered crops that will be resistant to, or tolerant of, DuPont- manufactured herbicides. For example,in 1984, Du Pont scientists developed experimental tobacco plants that were genetically resistant to the company’s Glean herbicide–in fact, 100 times more resistant than normal plants. Now the company is field- testing a variety of crops genetically engineered to be “herbicide resistant,” hoping to guarantee a healthy market for Glean and other herbicides with the new genetically engineered seed.

The fundamental problem with such efforts is that “it diverts us from the paths that really could lead to reduced chemical dependency in agriculture,” argues “Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest,” a 1990 report of the Biotechnology Working Group, a coalition of environmental, farm, church and consumer organizations. “At a time when pesticide residues are being found increasingly in the food supply, in drinking water, and implicated as a source of farmer and farm worker poisonings, it is both inexcusable and unacceptable that biotechnology be used to further pesticide use in agriculture,” the report states.

The ozone game

It is for producing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)–the chemicals which destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer-that Du Pont is most infamous, however. The latest predictions from the EPA are that increased exposure to ultraviolet rays brought on by ozone destruction will resulting 200,000 additional U.S. skin cancer- related deaths over those previously expected during the next 50 years.

Du Pont is perhaps most culpable for stringing out the CFC era for its own business reasons and for delaying a shift to safe alternatives.

Beginning in 1931 and continuing for more than 40 years, Du Pont enjoyed a near-monopoly position in many of its CFC lines. And it held a dominant position in CFC production as a whole, accounting for half of the U.S. market and, at times, more than a fourth of the global market.

During the scientific and regulatory debates that followed the discovery of ozone depletion in 1974, Du Pont played a prominent role, routinely challenging scientific findings, arguing for “further study” and orchestrating a political campaign to forestall regulation.

Even while it downplayed the ozone problem, however, Du Pont had begun researching CFC alternatives as early as 1975. By 1979, several promising candidates had been identified. The main problem was that none of them could be produced as cheaply as the company’s largest selling CFCs.

Two years later, Du Pont abruptly de-escalated its research, ostensibly because scientific concern about CFCs was diminishing–and because market surveys indicated little interest in using more expensive alternatives.

Although scientific concern about the ozone had not in fact diminished, one thing had: the threat of federal regulation. The Reagan Administration was now in power. After spending $3 to $4 million a year on CFC substitutes in the late 1970s, Du Pont spent “practically nothing” on substitutes from 1981 to 1985, according to a Harvard Business School case study, “because it doubted that further regulatory restrictions on CFCs were forthcoming, and because the substitutes were uniformly more expensive.” But more definitive data on ozone depletion continued to mount.

In 1988, after dramatic new scientific evidence was revealed that ozone depletion was worse than previously believed–and after negative media coverage on Du Pont’s stonewalling–the company did an about face, announcing a phase-out of CFCs. The Du Pont phase-out, however, was specifically designated for “fully halogenated CFCs,” a scientific term that came to determine which chemicals were given specific phaseout deadlines under the 1987 international agreement regulating CFCs known as the Montreal Protocol. Some observers speculate that industry– with government complicity–deliberately redefined the formerly singular universe of “chlorofluorocarbons/fluorocarbons” into three new chemical categories. These “new” categories became the basis for differentiating which chemicals would be phased out and which would become the “officially sanctioned” substitutes [see “Du Pont’s Duplicity: Profiting at the Planet’s Expense,” Multinational Monitor, March 1990]. The new categories, HCFCs and HFCs, also damage the ozone layer, but not as severely as CFCs.

By 1988, it was generally believed that CFC replacements would sell at prices three to five times that of existing CFCs.

For Du Pont, the Montreal Protocol has become a godsend. First, by imposing production limits that provided much-needed price increases, the Protocol gave a boost to the company’s CFC business, which had begun declining in the 1970s. Second, it sanctioned a specific group of substitute chemicals that Du Pont was already prepared to deploy, giving them international environmental acceptability and a guaranteed market.

Thus assured, Du Pont began to execute its game plan, securing major commitments from industrial customers, such as a January 1991 commitment by General Motors to use HFC-134a in its 1994 automobile air conditioners. All of this, of course, had the effect of weaving Du Pont’s CFC replacements inextricably into the fabric of the world’s economy.

Du Pont has insisted throughout the CFC debate that the only alternatives available for most CFC applications are those it is currently pursuing. Yet, since 1988, research and development of other alternatives has made impressive progress.

In the electronics solvent market, for example–where Du Pont and others predicted that coming up with an acceptable CFC replacement would be all but impossible–at least three alternatives are now being used successfully: warm soapy water (IBM); terpenese from orange rinds (AT&T); and circuit board production that doesn’t need solvents (Apple, Northern Telecom).

The artful dodger

Du Pont is very adroit in dealing with the new realities of environmental issues. The company is usually one step ahead of its adversaries in strategic thinking and public-relations planning. Many times Du Pont has been able to outgun and outmaneuver its critics and competitors, taking control of what might otherwise become troublesome environmental issues.

In legislative battles, Du Pont typically looks for what it can live with, generally embracing the broad concepts that make the headlines while fighting doggedly over details and technical issues that the public rarely hears about. Those details, however, usually determine how effective new laws and regulations will be. Du Pont has used this political technique time and time again, influencing the final versions of the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990 and others.

In the long battle over the Superfund law, Du Pont supported the idea of creating an industry pool of money to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites.
The compromise measure that passed provided $1.6 billion over a five-year period, with 88 percent of the money coming from the chemical industry. Some industry leaders thought Du Pont had sold them out. In fact, Du Pont’s then-CEO, Irving Shapiro, had negotiated a quid pro quo of immeasurable value not only for Du Pont but for the entire chemical industry. In return for getting a commitment from industry to fund cleanup operations, pro-Superfund senators agreed to drop several liability provisions, one of which would have allowed victims of toxic wastes to sue chemical manufacturers in federal court.

Shapiro then went to the White House and had his picture taken shaking President Carter’s hand at the Superfund signing ceremony.

Fighting to the death over liability has, in fact, become something of a Du Pont specialty. Whether in oil spill legislation, consent decrees with EPA or the Department of Justice or settlements with citizen groups, liability is the one issue that Du Pont treats as virtually crucial.

“Better things” … and embedded pollution

Du Pont inventiveness has brought the world a long line of “Better Things for Better Living,” as the company’s 1990s slogan boasts. While Nylon, Dacron, Teflon and an impressive array of other materials have changed the way hundreds of millions of people live, they have also taken a heavy toll on the health of the planet.

Not only have the obvious pollution costs resulted, but huge energy costs and capital costs have also become apparent. Du Pont’s wonder materials and chemical inventiveness produced a new kind of industrial infrastructure, one with a huge appetite for energy and water as well as an enormous outflow of hydrocarbon and other gases.

Du Pont facilities nationwide, for example, consume nearly 1 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. And the company’s coal, oil and natural gas operation contribute to the release of hydrocarbon gases both in the extraction phase and the consumption phase.

Like Du Pont’s famous synthetic fibers, which are now found woven throughout the world’s apparel economy, Du Pont’s contributions to the planet’s environmental problems are woven deep into the fabric of the world’s economic system. Recapitalizing, reconfiguring and redirecting that system to ameliorate or reverse long-standing emissions and energy requirements will not be easy. Although Du Pont has now embarked on a much publicized pollution-reduction crusade, that alone will do little to alleviate the embedded environmental and energy costs of plastics, synthetic fibers, CFCs and other such substances.

Because Du Pont has played such a major role in creating and deploying these “ever-giving” substances, the level of responsibility and resources it must now commit to extricating the global economy from this embedded pollution should be commensurate with the market share that the company has enjoyed in these arenas for the last 50 years or more. This article is based on the Friends of the Earth report Hold the Applause.

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