Sustained Outrage

DuPont Co.  was among a list of “polluting companies” cited in a new report by the Center for Public Integrity that reveals an interesting twist from the federal government’s “Stimulus” program:

In the name of job creation and clean energy, the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters and granted them sweeping exemptions from the most basic form of environmental oversight, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

The administration has awarded more than 179,000 “categorical exclusions” to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing those projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Coal-burning utilities like Westar Energy and Duke Energy, chemical manufacturer DuPont, and ethanol maker Didion Milling are among the firms with histories of serious environmental violations that have won blanket NEPA exemptions.

Even a project at BP’s maligned refinery in Texas City, Tex. — owner of the oil industry’s worst safety record and site of a deadly 2005 explosion, as well as a benzene leak earlier this year — secured a waiver for the preliminary phase of a carbon capture and sequestration experiment involving two companies with past compliance problems. The primary firm has since dropped out of the project before it could advance to the second phase.

Agency officials who granted the exemptions told the Center that they do not have time in most cases to review the environmental compliance records of stimulus recipients, and do not believe past violations should affect polluters’ chances of winning stimulus money or the NEPA exclusions.

The report continued:

Documents obtained by the Center show the administration has devised a speedy review process that relies on voluntary disclosures by companies to determine whether stimulus projects pose environmental harm. Corporate polluters often omitted mention of health, safety, and environmental violations from their applications. In fact, administration officials told the Center they chose to ignore companies’ environmental compliance records in making grant decisions and issuing NEPA exemptions, saying they considered such information irrelevant.

Some polluters reported their stimulus projects might cause “unknown environmental risks” or could “adversely affect” sensitive resources, the documents show. Others acknowledged they would produce hazardous air pollutants or toxic metals. Still others won stimulus money just weeks after settling major pollution cases. Yet nearly all got exemptions from full environmental analyses, the documents show.

Regarding DuPont, the report explained:

The Energy Department — which has granted stimulus money to oil firms, chemical companies, and coal-burning utilities — has handed out similar waivers to recipients with some of the nation’s worst environmental compliance records. Among them:

— An electrical grid upgrade project in Kansas led by Westar Energy, the state’s largest coal-burning utility, which settled a major air pollution case by paying a half billion dollars in penalties and remediation costs. The Energy Department granted the NEPA waiver to Westar’s project, funded by a $19 million stimulus grant approved on the same day the settlement became official.

— A wind farm project in Texas, as well as an electrical grid upgrade project in five additional states, undertaken by Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C. The department granted the NEPA waiver to both Duke projects, funded by a combined $226 million in stimulus grants, even as the energy corporation continues its decade-long defense against two of the biggest air-pollution cases in the nation’s history.

A project to create clean-burning biofuel from seaweed led by the chemical giant DuPont, which faces two class-action lawsuits over water contamination caused by its toxic chemical known as C8. The department awarded DuPont’s biofuel project $8.9 million in stimulus funds in February, an amount nearly equal to the record environmental fine the company paid in 2005 to settle allegations that it hid the dangers of C8 from federal regulators for two decades.

It continued:

In its three-page questionnaire, DuPont reports that the project carries environmental risks, such as the use of “hazardous or toxic materials,” “additional chemical storage,” and “additional waste handling capabilities.”

“Does the proposed project have highly uncertain and potentially significant environmental effects or involve unique or unknown environmental risks?” the form asked.

DuPont checked “yes.”

Energy officials say they believe there was little risk in the first phase, and the second NEPA decision, which is now pending, will hinge on whether DuPont meets required milestones set for its initial lab work.

In a statement, DuPont stresses the company “has not applied for an environmental exclusion” for the project’s second phase, but rather is “following the necessary process set forth by the Department of Energy.” It states, “Each project that we work on includes, by our own policy, a comprehensive and individualized product stewardship program.”

That’s little consolation to environmental advocates who have long fought DuPont, and who believe the chemical giant can’t be trusted.

“It makes no sense to have environmental protection laws if we are going to circumvent them and exempt companies from having to follow them, especially companies like DuPont with long histories of pollution violations,” said Rick Abraham, a consultant who helped the United Steelworkers uncover high levels of the toxic chemical C8 in water supplies in a half dozen states with DuPont plants.

Such distrust is grounded in years of epic pollution battles. Kiger, the 62-year-old teacher who lives about a mile from a DuPont plant in West Virginia, remembers the day when a one-page letter arrived at his home from the local water service warning that traces of an “unregulated chemical” — C8 — had been found in the drinking water.

Tracing C8 to DuPont’s plant, which has used the chemical to make Teflon products since the 1950s, the letter called it “persistent” and “slow to be eliminated from the blood stream of people,” yet stated DuPont “is confident these levels are safe.”

“It was incredible,” recalled Kiger, who became a lead plaintiff in the first of three class-action lawsuits filed by West Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey residents alleging DuPont’s C8 had contaminated their water. His suit ended in a $108 million settlement paid by the company to clean up six water districts and conduct a health study of 80,000 people.

Internal DuPont documents uncovered in the litigation triggered an EPA enforcement case in 2004 that would yield a record-breaking civil penalty. The documents showed DuPont had tracked C8 in neighboring water supplies at levels beyond its own safety standard years before Kiger received his letter. By December 2005, DuPont had settled the EPA case by paying $16.5 million for eight toxic substances and hazardous waste violations dating back to the early 1980s.

Two years later, the company agreed to pay nearly $70 million in penalties and remediation to resolve air-pollution claims against four of its sulfuric acid plants in four states. In April 2009, EPA pursued DuPont on allegations it illegally dumped mercury from a polymer fiber facility, imposing a $59,000 fine.

None of these violations were raised in DuPont’s November 2009 stimulus questionnaire. The office that awarded the company its grant and NEPA exemption has since revised its form to ask about “any notices of violations … related to health, safety, or the environment within the last three years.”

The report also included a nice video interview with Joe Kiger, lead plaintiff in the major C8 lawsuit against DuPont: