The Environmental Protection Agency plans to impose a fine of several million dollars against DuPont Co. for allegedly concealing studies dating back more than 20 years that showed health risks from a chemical used to make fluoropolymers.
The company said it will fight the EPA charges vigorously.
EPA said July 8 that DuPont violated federal laws requiring it to disclose studies potentially showing harm.
Specifically, EPA said Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont failed to reveal studies that found perfluorooctanoic acid in pregnant women at a fluoropolymer factory in West Virginia; that one woman passed the chemical to her fetus; and that the company found PFOA in drinking water around the plant at levels above safety thresholds.
The amount of the fine has yet to be determined, but the agency plans to seek millions of dollars in penalties for three separate violations going back to 1981, said Tom Skinner, director of EPA's Office of Enforcement.
The fine is expected to be one of the largest for reporting violations under the Toxic Substances Control Act, he said in a conference call with reporters.
DuPont argues that there is no evidence that PFOA harms human health or the environment. DuPont spokesman Clif Webb said federal laws only require reporting if the chemicals have been shown to cause harm.
``We believe that a decision against DuPont in this matter would redefine TSCA and [the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] reporting requirements and would not prevail under the scrutiny of the courts,'' said DuPont lawyer Stacey Mobley.
The allegations have dogged DuPont since the Washington-based Environmental Working Group first asked EPA to investigate last year.
EPA officials said they first became aware of the studies when a lawyer working on a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents around the plant brought the studies to the agency in 2001. EPA said DuPont also failed to provide the agency with all toxicological information about PFOA when the agency asked for it in 1997 in connection with a permit application.
Skinner said the case will send a message that companies have to report health information, but one environmental group called the potential fine a ``slap on the wrist.''
EWG President Ken Cook said DuPont makes $200 million a year from fluoropolymer and PFOA-related sales, and said the agency should seek more than a few million dollars in fines.
He noted that federal laws allow the agency to seek up to $300 million in fines because some of the violations date back to 1981, when the company first found PFOA in the blood of employees at its Parkersburg, W.Va., plant.
Cook said EPA's approach indicates the Bush administration is being soft on DuPont.
EPA's Skinner said it is very unlikely that the agency will ask for a $300 million fine. Most similar cases yield fines of about $1 million, but they have gone as high as $5 million, he said.
Skinner said EPA and DuPont will start negotiations, but he said it could wind up before an internal EPA judge. Webb said DuPont could appeal any EPA decision to federal court.
EWG said the company should use alternatives to PFOA, and some consumer uses of Teflon should be phased out, but DuPont said it has not found any PFOA alternatives that meet its performance requirements.
EPA also is engaged in several other regulatory proceedings dealing with PFOA.
The agency and industry are trying to craft testing protocols for measuring PFOA in the environment, and the agency expects to wrap up a risk assessment of the chemical this fall.
PFOA is in the blood of most Americans, but government officials still are trying to figure out how it got there.
The health debate is particularly heated: EWG points to people like the child of a female DuPont worker in one of the studies who has had more than 30 operations to correct facial birth defects.
But industry officials point to studies, including one funded by EPA, that indicate that PFOA is unlikely to cause cancer or pose other health risks to the general public.