We raised our kids in southeastern Pennsylvania, which was still largely rural, although the influence of the DuPont Company radiated powerfully from its Wilmington base 18 miles away. Many family members and company executives lived in Chester County, whose jewel is Longwood Gardens, once the country estate of Pierre du Pont and now one of the world’s botanical wonders. DuPont was considered a good corporate neighbor. Family members and employees served on many community boards, and earlier generations had created foundations that were particularly active in land conservation and environmental protection. The company itself had the reputation of being a leader in industrial sustainability and corporate best practices.
That reputation fell apart this month with Nathanial Rich’s revelation of DuPont’s decades-long efforts to conceal the environmental and human costs of its chemical pollution. “They knew this stuff was harmful,” said attorney Rob Bilott, “and they put it in the water anyway.”
You’d think we’d be inured to these stories by now. From the cigarette companies to Dan Fagin’s Tom’s River, 60 years of a single, numbing plot line: cover-ups, bullying and lying through their teeth. “I always thought [DuPont] was among the ‘least-worst’ of the polluters,” the former editor of the local newspaper wrote me. “Turns out they were horrendous” – not in their own backyard, of course, but in West Virginia where they thought nobody would notice.
I don’t think DuPont set out to be a bad neighbor, but before succumbing to the siren song of deregulation, it’s worth pondering how it became one.