Chemical Company's Response to Water Worries: Silence
RALEIGH, N.C. — Americans have grown accustomed to hearing apologies from everyone from cheating car-makers to cheating presidents, but a Fortune 500 chemical company with a pollution problem in North Carolina is following a different model: don’t apologize, don’t explain.
For six months, Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours Co. has faced questions about an unregulated chemical with unknown health risks that flowed from the company’s plant into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.
The company has said virtually nothing in its own defense about chemicals it may have discharged for nearly four decades, and it skipped legislative hearings looking into health concerns.
Earlier this month, North Carolina environmental regulators said they might fine Chemours, revoke its license to discharge treated wastewater into the nearby river and open a criminal probe. State officials said the company chose silence over reporting a chemical spill last month as required.
In a rare response, Chemours said it’s committed to operating the plant, which employs about 900, “in accordance with all applicable laws and in a manner that respects the environment and public health and safety.”
New tests have detected the chemical GenX, used to make Teflon and other industrial products, at levels beyond the state’s estimated but legally unenforceable safety guidepost in 50 private water wells near Chemours’ Fayetteville plant and at a water treatment plant in Wilmington, about 100 miles (62 kilometers) downstream. There are no federal health standards addressing GenX and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as an “emerging contaminant” to be studied.
Lack of information about the chemical, its prevalence and health effects has disturbed people across eastern North Carolina.
John Fisher, 77, said when he moved into his home 20 years ago the company’s predecessor, DuPont, would invite neighbors through the gates for picnics and plant tours. But the only contact he’s had with Chemours was a notice a couple of weeks ago that his water well needed testing, and its outside vendor arranging to drop off bottled water.
“They haven’t officially gotten a hold of us saying, hey, we feel sorry for you, this is what we’re going to do for you,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he wonders whether GenX or other chemicals in his well water caused the cancer deaths of his dog and his daughter’s dogs next door.
“They would get big balls hanging off their bellies and they were all cancerous,” Fisher said. “We couldn’t figure out why all our dogs were dying of cancer.”
DuPont began using GenX to replace another fluorinated compound after neighbors of the company’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant claimed in more than 3,500 lawsuits that the compound made them sick. DuPont spun off Chemours into a separate company two years ago. A jury in July 2016 found the two companies liable for a man’s testicular cancer that he said was linked to a chemical emitted by the West Virginia plant.
The two companies this year agreed to pay nearly $671 million to settle further lawsuits.
Chemours’ zipped-lip strategy is likely a defensive crouch against the threat of costly lawsuits at a time when its financial future looks bright, said Geoffrey Basye, a public affairs consultant and former Federal Aviation Administration spokesman under President George W. Bush. Bond rating agency Moody’s has upgraded its opinion of the company and Chemours’ stock price has more than doubled since the start of the year.
“Not only can a stock’s performance play a pivotal role in how a company chooses to respond, or not respond, major shareholders and the board can also influence a company’s public affairs posture,” Basye said.
The company’s caution could make people think it’s hiding something, he said, but he noted that industrial companies like Chemours tend to have a different culture from enterprises that deal directly with consumers.
“Companies who tend to operate in the shadows before a crisis occurs have a tendency to stay in the shadows once the crisis hits,” Bayse said.
Chemours’ silence runs contrary to legal lessons and social science research that suggest addressing mistakes eases hard feelings and saves corporations money, said Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton business school professor who teaches negotiation and corporate decision-making.
Studies have found an apology for medical mistakes can be enough to satisfy aggrieved patients, leading to fewer malpractice actions, greater willingness to settle lawsuits and lower demand for damages, Schweitzer said.
“The natural tendency to keep a low profile, hope things blow over, is exactly what anyone who’s been harmed by some action doesn’t want,” he said.