DuPont Co. agreed Dec. 14 to pay $10.25 million to settle allegations that it withheld key health data about fluoropolymer manufacturing from the Environmental Protection Agency, the largest civil administrative penalty the EPA said it has ever obtained.
The agreement, which is subject to approval from the agency's Environmental Appeals Board, resolves four allegations that the company did not tell the government about studies showing health problems with perfluorooctanoic acid, a key ingredient used in making fluoropolymers, dating back to 1981.
The agreement also calls for the company to pay $6.25 million for other environmental projects: $5 million for research into how nine DuPont fluorotelomer-related products break down into PFOA, and $1.25 million for a green chemistry education program.
Granta Nakayama, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said the fine is the largest civil administrative penalty in EPA ``not by a little, by a lot.''
The largest previous administrative fine had been $6.4 million, paid by a pipeline firm in 1994. The EPA has had larger civil penalties imposed by courts, but this was the largest under an EPA administrative proceeding, Nakayama said.
DuPont officials said in a statement that the company is not admitting liability, and said its Teflon-related consumer products are safe to use.
``Our interpretation of the reporting requirements differed from the agency's,'' said DuPont Senior Vice President and General Counsel Stacey Mobley. ``We have already cut PFOA emissions from U.S. plant sites by 98 percent [since 1999], and we are committed to reducing those emissions by 99 percent by 2007.''
The Environmental Working Group, which had petitioned EPA to fine Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont, said the penalty is too small because it amounts to one-half of one percent of DuPont's profits from Teflon-related products over the last 20 years.
``What's the proper dollar penalty for a pollutant that will never break down and now finds its way into polar bears in the Arctic and human babies in their mothers' wombs?'' said Ken Cook, president of the Washington-based EWG. ``We're pretty sure it's not $16 million, even if that is a record amount under a federal law that everyone acknowledges is extremely weak.''
The theoretical maximum penalty could have been about $300 million, but Nakayama defended the EPA decision, saying the fine sends a message to industry that there are substantial risks to not submitting health information.
In a news conference, he and other EPA officials said they had to weigh the risk that they could prove their case against DuPont, in an area where some have suggested the regulations are ambiguous.
EPA does not have any data showing harm to humans from PFOA exposure, but agency officials said animal studies raise concern. Officials were also concerned that DuPont did not report a study showing that a mother had transmitted PFOA to her child during pregnancy.
Also of concern is that PFOA is found at very low levels in most of the U.S. population, but officials are not sure how the chemical, which does not occur naturally, got there, said Susan Hazen, EPA's principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
The $5 million research project will help answer that, along with other work the EPA is conducting, she said.
The settlement prompted the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., to say that U.S. chemical laws are too weak to give EPA the tools to evaluate chemicals before there is widespread human exposure.