Sierra Club goes after DuPont

An environmental group has joined two labor unions in seeking an investigation of DuPont Co.’s use of a controversial chemical at a Virginia plant.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and two unions representing DuPont employees asked the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to probe the company’s handling of PFOA, a chemical identified as a likely carcinogen by an EPA science advisory board.

PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid, is used to make Teflon, an ingredient in nonstick cookware and all-weather clothing. PFOA was once used to make Teflon at the Spruance plant, but company officials have said it did not pose a threat to workers or the environment. Its use at Spruance was discontinued in 2004, the company said.

State and federal officials should investigate those claims, said the Ampthill Rayon Workers Union, which represents about 1,100 local DuPont employees, and the United Steelworkers International Union, which has criticized the company’s use of PFOA at other plants.

Company documents indicate that wastewater containing PFOA was released into the James River from the plant as early as 1991 “apparently without any notice being provided to public officials,” according to a letter signed by union representatives and officers with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

A Sierra Club spokesman said the letter was sent to the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Specifically, the groups want the agencies to investigate whether PFOA, or substances that degrade into PFOA, are still present at the Spruance site and in discharges into the James River or in the groundwater near the plant.

“Given DuPont’s history regarding the disclosure of information concerning PFOA and related chemicals, nothing less than a thorough investigation is warranted,” the letter said.

In December, DuPont agreed to pay a $16.5 million penalty to the EPA for allegedly withholding information about the potential health and environmental risks posed by PFOA after the chemical was found in the blood of workers and in groundwater around a plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. The company also agreed last year to pay $107 million to settle a lawsuit filed by residents near the plant.

In a statement, DuPont said it will “work with the EPA and VDEQ to determine any actions that may be necessary to keep our site protective of human health and the environment.” The company said it saw no reason to test the groundwater after Teflon production was stopped, based on the “small concentration” of PFOA at the site.

There is no proof that PFOA causes long-term health problems in humans, but it has been linked to health problems in laboratory animals. DuPont and other companies have agreed to drastically reduce emissions of PFOA by 2010 and virtually eliminate it by 2015.