Ohio suit v. DuPont is broad
The lawsuit brought by the state of Ohio against DuPont and Chemours alleging decades of environmental damage in Ohio from the companies’ operations near Parkersburg is the latest of many legal actions brought against the companies and will probably, like the others, take years to resolve.
Dan Tierney, a lawyer in the office of the Ohio Attorney General, said Thursday it’s difficult to speculate how long the case will be in court.
“It could easily take a number of years, that’s certainly not uncommon,” he said. “It depends on the response from the company and the schedule of the court, those are the two big ones.”
The Attorney General filed the complaint in Washington County Common Pleas Court on Feb. 8. Tierney said the case was filed in the Marietta court because it’s the nearest part of Ohio to the Washington Works plant where the emissions originated.
“It’s directly across the river, and the proximity made sense,” Tierney said.
The lawsuit is not seeking a specific dollar amount in damages, he said.
“The focus of our litigation is Ohio and Ohioans being able to enjoy their property and the natural resources around them,” he said. “The damages are up to the court. We’re asking for DuPont to determine what cleanup is needed and to pay for it.”
Thousands of personal injury lawsuits have been filed as a consequence of decades of contamination originating from the Washington Works near Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River, where the corporation processed the chemicals to make Teflon, the nonstick coating for cookware and thousands of other products in common use. Perfluorooctanoic acid, one component in the mixture, commonly known as PFOA or C8, was shown to be a carcinogen. It became widespread in the environment around the plant, including water wells on the Ohio side of the river.
The full extent of C8 contamination in the environment is not known, although it began showing up in water wells in Washington County. Josh Lane, director of environmental health for the Washington County Health Department, said the department’s involvement with C8 began in 2006 when the EPA established guidelines for health threats from the chemical in drinking water.
The treatment to remove the chemical used activated grain carbon filtration systems, which pumped raw well water through the filters and returned it to the aquifer. Lane said the county health department had to approve the permits for private wells.
Beginning in 2006, the county issued permits for 44 wells, he said, followed by 13 in 2007, only one in 2008, six in 2009 and one in 2010. From 2011-2015, none were issued, he said, but the EPA lowered the threshold for safe levels of contamination, and another seven permits were issued in 2016 and 14 in 2017, he said.
Lane said the pattern of contamination continues to be puzzling.
“There have been wells almost to Waterford that have been affected, but hundreds between Belpre and Waterford that were not. I’m not sold on any conclusions, this just baffles me,” he said.
The Little Hocking Water Association sued DuPont in 2006, alleging that its entire water supply had been contaminated with C8. DuPont installed the filtration system and for two years starting in 2007 supplied the association’s 12,000 customers with bottled drinking water. The lawsuit was settled in a closed agreement in 2015. In the same year, more than 3,000 personal injury lawsuits by individuals against DuPont and its successor company at the Washington Works, Chemours, were clustered into groups and eventually settled with nondisclosure agreements, widely reported to total $670 million.
The lawsuit brought by the state of Ohio is in a different category, seeking environmental studies and remediation for all damages done.
Eric Fitch, an associate professor at Marietta College and its director of environmental science, said one of the goals of the lawsuit might be to determine the extent of the C8 contamination in Ohio.
“My thinking is that if the Attorney General is seeking that as a condition, my suspicion is that there has not been a comprehensive assessment done,” he said. “We do know that there are ongoing assessments and studies being done not just at the Washington Works plant but all over the country. They seem to be mostly epidemiological, looking backward.
“The knowledge we have is geographic sampling, as opposed to knowing what has been released. Most of their history, they didn’t keep records because they didn’t have to.”
The data on C8 releases , he said, is being reconstructed for the most part after the fact.
“We know it’s been discharged, it’s present in the environment, in some places it’s been discovered in the water,” he said.
The state’s lawsuit is imprecise about how much C8 and associated compounds were released during the 60 years the material was used — and discharged — at the Ohio River plant, characterizing it as “hundreds of thousands of pounds.” Paragraph 74 of the complaint states that discharges of PFOA into the river amounted to “at least 150,000 pounds” during the 1980s and “at least 350,000 pounds” during the 1990s.
Discharges into the environment, both through water and air, are alleged to have taken place from 1951 through 2013, and the state claims DuPont knew C8 had toxicity problems as early as 1961.
The lawsuit calls for damages to injury to Ohio natural resources, including economic impact, present and future cleanup costs, restitution damages for the profits made by the companies in the course of the conduct alleged, interest and attorneys’ fees, and other relief the court might award.
DuPont’s corporate media department in Delaware replied to a request for comment by saying the company had not been served and could not comment.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency deferred to the Attorney General office for comment. Attorneys there confirmed that supporting documentation for the lawsuit will be filed as a part of the discovery process as the case proceeds.
Mark Fleischman, an advisor to Keep Your Promises DuPont, a Mid-Ohio Valley advocacy group, said the state’s action is “long overdue.”
“Obviously, I’m happy to see this taking place. Both states (Ohio and West Virginia) have known about the contamination issue for a good long while,” he said. “One way to think about it … is that the people who created the problem need to deal with the outcomes. These are wonderful people in the Mid-Ohio Valley, and their good nature has been taken advantage of by companies that have treated it like a dump.”
About the lawsuit
¯ Ohio Attorney General et al vs E.I. DuPont De Neimours Corp. and Chemours Corp.
¯ Date filed: Feb. 8.
¯ Purpose of lawsuit: Compel DuPont and Chemours to identify environmental damage in Ohio from C8 emissions and repair it.