May 24, 2018

Chemical giant Chemours is facing off against residents of North Carolina in a battle over a potentially harmful compound used to make nonstick pans.

Teflon is the quintessential American product. It was discovered by accident and like many such discoveries was at first simply a creation in search of a purpose. Versions of it are in our frying pans and popcorn bags, our medical devices and electronic gadgets, our pruning shears and our cars. It is ubiquitous and essential. It is part of our vocabulary, uttered with both envy and exasperation to describe politicians and Mafia dons. It even helped win World War II: Teflon was needed to properly seal the pipes in the gaseous diffusion plant where uranium was enriched to make the first atomic bombs.

Teflon is made by Chemours, a chemical manufacturer that was spun out of DuPont in 2015.

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But Chemours (and by extension, DuPont) now finds itself again in legal and regulatory trouble with Teflon. This time it’s over the chemical developed to replace C8—and how it came to be that the companies were for decades discharging this substance from a factory in rural North Carolina into the air and the Cape Fear River, the water supply for more than 250,000 people in and around Wilmington, N.C.

The chemical is called GenX. (Not to be confused with Generation X, the demographic cohort that came after the baby boomers.) GenX is everywhere in and around the Chemours North Carolina factory, known as the Fayetteville Works. It’s in the dirt, falling to the earth with the rain. It is in the wells of nearby residents, say state officials, sparking fear and anger.

“People ask me why I don’t just walk away,” said Mike Watters, who lives near the factory on five acres with a well and property contaminated by Chemours’s discharges and has joined a lawsuit against the company. He has a simple answer: “I didn’t cause this. They did.”

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