“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.

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. 

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.”

Read the full article by Lisa Sorg