Chemical giant DuPont decided to sell a factory in southern Louisiana that emits a likely cancer-causing pollutant, citing “major concerns” that government agencies would regulate its emissions to protect the community that lives nearby, reveal internal documents seen by the Guardian.
The documents show that the multi-billion dollar company was concerned in 2011 about the potential cost of offsetting its emissions of the “likely human carcinogen”, chloroprene, and then moved on to sell the factory, the Pontchartrain Works facility.
The company called the sale “Project Elm” in an apparent attempt to keep the business, completed in 2015, confidential. It was also alleged that the company withheld details of its own research to offset emissions from the plant’s new owners.
Residents of the city of Reserve, where the facility is located, described the revelations as “terrible” and said they were never informed by DuPont of any possible emissions regulations.
According to the EPA, several census tracts close to the factory in the majority black community have the highest risk of cancer due to air pollution anywhere in the United States, more than 50 times the national average, mainly due to chloroprene emissions. The community is the subject of a reporting project supported by the Guardian.
“They [DuPont] should have told us. They have a good neighborhood policy, but they were not trying to change anything. They would continue for another 50 years if that [potential government regulation] it didn’t come to light, ”said Mary Hampton, a resident who lives a few hundred meters from the factory.
“They prioritize profits over people. They come to your neighborhood and provide as little information as possible, ”said Lydia Gerard, another resident who lost her husband to cancer in 2018.“ For me, it shows that DuPont thought, ‘Let’s see how long we can get away with this in this community before anyone finds out and says anything about it. “
Gerard is the lead plaintiff in a mass civil liability lawsuit that is being brought against DuPont and the current owners of the plant, the Japanese chemical company Denka. The documents analyzed by the Guardian in a state court in the parish of São João Batista, were used as evidence in the case. The authors accuse both companies of negligence and damage due to continuous and historic air pollution.
Much of the case remains secret from the court, but a limited number of exposures, including an internal DuPont memo, are available for public viewing in a state court in St. John the Baptist parish.
DuPont argued in court that it cannot be held responsible, since it no longer owns the plant, despite having opened the facility and polluted the air with chloroprene for nearly half a century. In November, judge Kirk A Vaughn ruled against DuPont. Last week, a state appeals court also ruled against DuPont.
DuPont did not respond to the Guardian’s detailed questions, but a spokesman said: “Although we do not comment on pending litigation, we will vigorously defend our safety, health and environmental management record.”
A Denka spokesman also declined to comment on detailed issues, citing ongoing disputes.
DuPont’s internal memo of June 2011 highlights the company’s motivation to sell the plant. Finally, it was purchased by the Japanese company in November 2015, with no public mention of potential emissions regulations.
The information memo was authored by the company’s then-president of polymers, Diane Gulyas, and was sent to the chief executive’s office. He lists two “main concerns for the future” as the basis for selling the plant.
The first point cites the 2010 EPA decision to list chloroprene as a probable carcinogen and states that: “Local regulatory agencies can use this new change in direction and define acceptable exposure levels in the workplace and in the community” . The memo warns that new compliance regulations could be put in place in 2012 or 2013, stating: “The measures needed to achieve compliance may involve capital expenditures”.
In fact, the factory was only required to regulate its emissions after the sale to Denka. In 2017, Denka signed a voluntary agreement with the Louisiana Department of Environment to reduce chimney emissions by 85%. The company says it spent more than $ 35 million refurbishing the plant. Emissions often continue to exceed the recommended 0.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter, although not required by the EPA, as a safe and lasting exposure limit.
The Japanese company said it was unaware of an EPA air toxicity report that highlighted the risk of cancer in the Reserve published shortly after the plant was purchased.
The 2011 memo notes that while sales of neoprene, synthetic rubber invented by DuPont and manufactured with chloroprene, have declined internationally, DuPont still maintained its “position as the leading supplier to the United States markets” and had a ” significant role “in Europe.
The memo cites supply chain issues as another selling point. The neoprene unit was valued at $ 190 million at the time, but DuPont estimated that it might have to pay up to $ 30 million to “comply with changes in the regulatory environment” and believed that there was an “unlikely” scenario in which it could pay further. The company was prepared to lose up to $ 100 million from the valuation on the sale.
Lawyers working for residents have argued in lawsuits that DuPont has examined emissions compensation that cost up to $ 50 million to reduce emissions by up to 99%. DuPont did not pass on any of the research it had commissioned on offsetting chloroprene emissions to new plant owners, according to allegations in the files.
The claim is supported by extracts from testimonies sworn by a senior DuPont employee, George Denny Wright. In a short excerpt, reviewed by the Guardian, Wright states that the company wanted to explore a reduction in emissions and, later, adds: “We knew that we had to look at a very difficult number to reach, so we analyzed all the possibilities and options that I had. “
“It was a financial decision to continue to contaminate a community, when in fact the technology was there to implement the controls to operate the facility safely. And them [DuPont] chose not to do it because of the price, ”said Hugh Lambert, a lawyer who worked for the plaintiffs in the case, echoing his allegations in court.
The lawyers argued in filings that DuPont also maintained close ties with the plant’s new operators, even after the sale, and leased some services to Denka while continuing to manufacture neoprene, including water, compressed air and nitrogen systems.
The files also quote extracts from the lease directly, allegedly showing that DuPont required Denka to operate the plant in the same way that it had previously done and needed “prior written consent from DuPont” to change certain manufacturing processes.
DuPont also still owns the land on which the facility was built and operates a kevlar production line at the same location.