Department of Labor records document dangerous conditions inside Chemours facility

By: - May 9, 2018 5:00 am

Chemours CEO Mark Vergnano in a company YouTube video explaining his three-year “growth strategy.” (Screenshot

Despite severe worker injuries in 2013 incident, Department of Labor fines were minimal  

[This is the first of a special two-part story about DuPont/Chemours. The second part will be published later today on The Progressive Pulse blog.]

On Halloween afternoon in 2013, a worker at DuPont’s Fayetteville Works plant was replacing a valve in a room that produces membranes containing Nafion. This is the same perfluorinated compound that for years flowed through an illegal, unlined “Nafion ditch” from the facility into the Cape Fear River and downstream to Wilmington’s drinking water supply.

But on this day, the problem chemical was not Nafion, but methylene chloride. A solvent, degreaser, refrigerant and paint stripper, methylene chloride is toxic and potentially cancer-causing. It can severely burn the skin. Short-term exposure to high concentrations can cause confusion, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and headache, and irritate the eyes and respiratory tract. High concentrations can kill.

[Tweet “His co-workers found him lying unconscious on the floor.”]

Shortly before 3:30 p.m., an employee was working on the valve when methylene chloride, chilled to minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit to cool the Nafion manufacturing process, escaped from copper tubing. When his co-workers found him, he was lying unconscious on the floor.

The man had also been seared with second- and third-degree burns on 30 to 38 percent of his body: face, arms, chest, abdomen, upper thighs and genitals, according to Department of Labor documents. The injuries were so severe that the employee was transferred from Cape Fear Valley Medical Center to the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill to undergo surgery for skin grafts.

Ten more employees were hospitalized overnight — some of them administered oxygen — after being exposed to the chemical while helping to rescue their colleague and possibly saving his life.

The total fine the labor department levied on DuPont, later spun off as Chemours: $12,600.

“These fines are peanuts to a billion-dollar company like Chemours and they’re an insult to the workers who were injured because of corporate negligence,” said Marybe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. “We need higher penalties but ultimately, we need to do more to prevent accidents like this from happening in the first place.”

Despite DuPont’s and Chemours’s immense profitability, the company has eluded meaningful financial responsibility for its workplace and environmental misconduct. State law caps the maximum penalty amounts, even if a company is flush with funds. 

[Tweet “Chemours recorded net sales of $1.7 billion in 1st quarter 2018 alone.”]

On May 3, Chemours released its sunny first-quarter earnings report, showing it doubled its earnings over this time last year. The company recorded $1.7 billion in net sales in the first quarter alone.

“Given our strong first quarter results and visibility into the rest of 2018, we are reiterating our expectation that earnings will be at the high end of our previously announced range, wrote Chemours CEO Mark Vergnano. “Our anticipated 2018 performance is indicative of the high returns we believe Chemours can deliver over the next three-years.”

The windfall is attributable in part, to a 12 percent increase in sales of fluoroproducts, including Nafion and Teflon, of which GenX is a manufacturing byproduct. From January through March of this year, Chemours sold $732 million worth of fluoroproducts, some of them produced in North Carolina.

These are the same chemicals and byproducts responsible for contaminating groundwater, drinking water, lakes, soil, air and the Cape Fear River. These are the same chemicals whose manufacturing process went awry on that Halloween afternoon in 2013, endangering the lives of 11 North Carolina workers.

Documents: Chemours knew workers at risk 

Chemours did not respond to a Policy Watch email, but Department of Labor documents tell a detailed story of the methylene chloride accident. The documents were redacted to obscure the workers’ names, required under medical privacy laws. However, the supervisors’ and other workers’ names were also blacked out for privacy reasons.

The system carrying methylene chloride was also known as a “brine system.” Highly complicated, it required a two- to four-year training program that relied on “memorization” of the many steps  to clean and repair it.

Despite the system’s complexity, there were no specific operating procedures. And valves on the brine system were not only hard to locate but also unlabeled. It could take 10 to 15 minutes just to trace the path of a pipe to find the right valve to shut off or turn on. The wrong choice could be disastrous.

These factors led to the methylene chloride accident, but they didn’t have to happen. Chemours management, the documents say, knew of these problems but had not resolved them. Only after the accident and a state inspection did supervisors ensure the valves and piping was properly labeled — with markings as simple as red and green tags.

Because of the severity of the accident, in early 2014, Department of Labor inspectors originally cited the company for four citations, all of them designated “serious.” Each citation was accompanied by a $6,300 fine, for a total of $25,200, assessed in April 2014.

According a state law passed by a Democratic majority in 2005, the maximum civil penalty per violation is $7,000, said Dolores Quesenberry, Department of Labor spokesperson. The only way the state can assess a higher per item penalty, Quesenberry said, is if it is determined that the employer willfully or repeatedly violated a standard. “This investigation/inspection did not find that any of the cited items were willfully or repeatedly violated by the employer,” she added.

Because DuPont had not received a serious citation in the previous three years, department officials reduced the fine by 10 percent.

Accidents in which no one was injured, but that show vulnerabilities in a facility, also go unreported. A month before the Halloween accident, a similar malfunction occurred, but no methylene chloride leaked and no one was exposed to any chemicals.

“We need more inspectors,” McMillan said. “our workforce has grown but the number of inspectors has declined. Right now it would take 96 years for inspectors to inspect each worksite in the state just once. That’s unacceptable.”

[Tweet “Chemours received a discount but didn’t want to pay a dime”]

Even though Chemours received a discount, the company didn’t want to pay a dime. According to an email sent in May 2014 to state officials from Kimberly Richardson, DuPont’s Occupational Safety and Health and Homeland Senior Counsel, the company “contests all alleged violations … and penalty amounts.”

An administrative hearing about the penalty didn’t happen until December 2014 — more than a year after the accident. Meanwhile, the burned employee missed 61 days of work because of his injuries. No civil suits were filed in Bladen County related to the accident, according to the Superior Court database, but it is possible that the employee did not pursue litigation or the case was settled out of court.

After extensive negotiations, labor department officials dismissed two of the citations and assessed the final penalty in April 2015, shortly before DuPont spun off part of the company into Chemours: The settlement agreement called for a $12,600 penalty, roughly equivalent to the total cost of transporting the 11 workers by ambulance the 17 miles from Chemours to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.

And this year, the company made that much money off the sale of fluorocarbon products in just three minutes.


Methylene chloride: It could be in your home, too

Methylene chloride, the same chemical that injured 11 workers in the DuPont/Chemours Fayetteville Works plant, is also found in paint strippers commonly used in the home. And unlike industrial employees, people using the chemical at home rarely wear protective gear.

This week, several consumer and environmental groups sent a letter to the Lowe’s CEO, asking that the home improvement store remove paint strippers containing the chemical, and another N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), from their shelves.

Three people have died in the last year in the US while using paint strippers containing methylene chloride. Drew Wynne, 31, died in October 2017 while using a paint stripper to strip the floor at his coffee brewing business in South Carolina. Kevin Hartley, 21, died in April 2017 after using the product to strip a bathtub for his family’s contracting business in Tennessee. And just this past February, 31-year-old Joshua Atkins died while refinishing his BMX bike in Pennsylvania.

The victims’ families are meeting in Washington, DC, this week with members of Congress and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to demand that the EPA finalize a pending ban on the use of the toxic chemicals in paint stripper products.

Last year, the EPA proposed banning paint strippers containing these chemicals, citing the products’ unreasonable risks to consumers. Under pressure from the chemical industry, the agency has yet to finalize the ban. More than 60,000 US workers and 2 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride and NMP each year.

In North Carolina, advocates for the ban include El Pueblo, Toxic Free NC, the NC League of Conservation Voters, the NC Conservation Network, NC Child, Environment North Carolina and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.