#DuPontKnew: Worse Things for Worse Living

Just because ExxonMobil may get away with avoiding legal accountability for its years of obstructing environmental justice doesn’t mean that all polluters will be able to do so. Case in point: DuPont, which earlier this month confronted the consequences of carelessness about cancer:

David Freeman hugged Michael Papantonio after a federal court jury awarded him $5.1 million on Wednesday in his lawsuit against DuPont.

The Marietta College professor might give his attorney a bear hug later this week after the same jury, which decided the company had acted with malice when it dumped C8-tainted water into the Ohio River, awards him punitive damages.

The jury of four women and three men in U.S. District Court in Columbus said the chemical giant was responsible for Freeman’s testicular cancer. Freeman is among 3,500 plaintiffs who contend the chemical found its way into their drinking water and caused their illnesses.

C8 is a detergent-like chemical that was used to make Teflon at DuPont’s Washington Works plant outside Parkersburg, W.Va. The plaintiffs are from Ohio and West Virginia towns along the river.

Papantonio and Gary Douglas also won a $1.6 million award in October for an Athens County woman who said C8 caused her kidney cancer. That jury did not award punitive damages. The two suits are among six “bellwether” — or test — cases whose rulings are guidelines for attorneys in the remaining lawsuits. One of the six was thrown out, and three others were settled.

(The jury went on to award Freeman $500,000 in punitive damages.)

What makes this story so infuriating is that, as was the case with ExxonMobil and carbon emissions, DuPont reportedly knew for over 50 years about the risks C8 posed to the public:

[A] slew of documents have been unsealed from the ongoing trial. The documents show that DuPont was well aware of the dangers of C8 dating all the way back to 1961, and in many instances, their own environmental lawyers privately questioned the company’s decision to pretend that a problem didn’t exist…

53 years passed from the time that DuPont acknowledged that C8 was toxic until they ceased dumping the chemical into the Ohio River. 16 years passed between the end of the dumping and the company’s acknowledgment that C8 was a human carcinogen. And not once during that time did they ever announced to the public that their health could be in danger, nor did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency step forward to warn the public about the dangers they were being exposed to, in spite of the agency fining DuPont $16.5 million in 2005 for concealing the dangers of C8.

Of course, had the EPA tried to warn the public, the agency would have been ridiculed by the right for alleged alarmism–the same playbook the wingnuts use whenever the EPA tries to raise awareness about the climate crisis. What’s DuPont’s excuse?

I was only nine years old when I first heard about the settlement in the Beatrice Foods/W. R. Grace water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts–the case which formed the basis of the 1995 nonfiction book A Civil Action, which was later turned into a 1998 film starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall and John Lithgow. I remember seeing the film version of A Civil Action in January 1999, and thinking to myself that a tragedy like this could never happen again, that too many people would be aware now, that too many people would be vigilant about their health and the health of their children to allow another horror like the Beatrice Foods/W. R. Grace case to take place in the future. I could not have been more wrong.

You have to wonder if those who were responsible for both DuPont’s deceptions and ExxonMobil’s evasiveness have any sense of guilt, remorse or shame for what they have done. Then again, why would they? They probably think cancer and climate change only affect the little people.

UPDATE: More from Mark Heyne and the Detroit Free Press.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.