Sustained Outrage

‘Green goo’, DuPont and clarifying the facts

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Rebecca Morlock, 41, of Spelter, WVa., stands in front of the fence of former DuPont zinc-smelting plant in the town of Spelter, WV on July 27, 2009. Morlock keeps watching the demolished factory. “I’ll stay on top of it because people’s lives could possibly be at stake,” she says. (AP Photo / Lingbing Hang)

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press had an interesting story over the weekend about the pollution of the Harrison County town of Spelter. Readers will recall this is the subject of a nearly $400 million jury verdict against DuPont Co., which now has an appeal pending before the state Supreme Court. Here’s how the story began:

For at least five years before Rebecca Morlock noticed what she calls “a green goo” seeping out of the ground below a former zinc-smelting plant in the town of Spelter, water loaded with potentially toxic heavy metals was trickling into the West Fork River.
State environmental inspectors didn’t spot it, even though they’re required to walk the site twice a year.
Neither did the engineering firm hired by DuPont to inspect the site monthly to ensure toxic waste remains sealed under a layer of earth and plastic.

The story prompted an odd letter to the Gazette’s editor (published today) from DuPont official Sheryl Telford, purportedly to “provide several clarifications” to the AP story. After reading the article and the letter both a couple of times, I couldn’t figure out what was being clarified.

I called Dan Turner, the DuPont public relations agent who sent the letter to the Gazette, and tried to get him to explain. He wasn’t much help:

I think the letter speaks for itself. We wanted to make it clear and understandable. The letter speaks for itself. I’m not going to parse the letter.

But the part of the letter that kept jumping out at me was this:

 Since 2001, DuPont has been monitoring water quality in the West Fork River, and the data – which is reported to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection  (WVDEP) – shows a steady improvement. Most importantly, the WVDEP has stated that the seep, the subject of the AP’s article, had no adverse impact on the river.

OK … so I checked back to Vicki’s story, and found this:

The DEP says high levels of dissolved metals in the seep rapidly dispersed, soaking into the soil as they flowed downhill, then were further diluted in a river that no one downstream uses for drinking water. The only risk, the agency says, might be to fish.

And this:

Certain metals at the DuPont site, including arsenic, cadmium and lead, can in high concentrations cause serious health problems ranging from developmental disabilities and cancers to low fertility. The site is fenced and inaccessible to the public, making runoff the only potential threat.

And even this:

Overall, the trends are downward, and because neither Spelter nor any downstream community relies on the West Fork for drinking water, DEP officials say there should be no impact on people.

So, I’m still not sure what DuPont was trying to clarify. The company seems to have further confused things, by taking DEP’s statements (no impact on people, but possible risk to fish) and exaggerated them into something that sounds much better (“no adverse impact on the river”).

I asked Dan Turner for some proof of this “no adverse impacts” statement, and this is is response:

With regard to our earlier discussion, we stand by the statement about no adverse impacts to the West Fork River that is referenced in our letter to the editor.  It is consistent with our understanding of WVDEP’s position.

But after reading the letter and Vicki’s story, a couple things come to mind that Sustained Outrage readers might want to know.

First of all, Vicki discussed in her story how the seep of “green goo” was not discovered by the consulting company hired by DuPont to manage the site cleanup:

“How this missed us is, to this point, a mystery,” says Ron Potesta, president of Potesta & Associates. “I wish we had found it ourselves.”

The reminded me of some of the allegations made during the trial about DuPont, Potesta, and their relationship to the WVDEP. As outlined in the residents’ Supreme Court brief (See pages 10-11):

Internal memoranda show that the loyalty of Potesta & Associates to DuPont, and not to the citizens of West Virginia, played a significant role in DuPont’s selection of an employee of Potesta to act as the [Licensed Remediation Specialist] for the Spelter smelter site.

DuPont wanted an LRS who would “stretch his neck out” for DuPont and would stay on the “reservation,” traits DuPont believed Potesta possessed. DuPont’s in-house counsel summed up the LRS choice: “…we have a great relationship with Potesta, they have very deep relations with the WVDEP, they have every reason to be helpful to DuPont … “

And perhaps it should be clarified for readers why nobody gets their drinking water from the West Fork River downstream from the Spelter site. While DuPont may have cleaned up the site, government documents detail clearly that it was pollution from the smelter operation itself that led local residents to abandon use of the river for drinking water purposes … check out this document from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which outlines EPA’s 1996 findings about damage to the river from the smelter pollution:

The West Fork River receives runoff from the Site containing elevated levels of metals thus posing a threat to fisherman, animals and the food chain. The downstream City of Shinnston is forced to draw water from the Tygart Valley River, a distance of 15 miles, due to the poor water quality of the West Fork River. No municipalities draw water from the West Fork River due to run off from the tailings pile.