Health

Saint-Gobain whistleblower says company ignored pleas to probe pollution sites


ALBANY — A former in-house attorney for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which owns a manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls that contaminated the village’s water supplies with a toxic chemical, alleges he was fired last year after he pushed leaders of the corporation to fully investigate whether their other U.S. plants may have polluted public water supplies with a manmade polymer. 

The attorney, Amiel Gross, worked for Saint-Gobain for six years at its headquarters in Malvern, Pa., including on litigation involving toxic pollution. In a whistleblower complaint he filed with the U.S. Department of Labor earlier this month, Gross alleges the company’s CEO and other top officials labeled him a “troublemaker” and dissuaded him from doing an investigation.

The civil complaint, which seeks reinstatement and back pay, also said that Saint-Gobain may have used far greater amounts of a highly concentrated version of the toxic chemical at its plants in Hoosick Falls, Bennington, Vt., and Merrimack, N.H., than has been disclosed to regulatory agencies.

A spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain said Gross’ allegations are “without merit” and she noted the complaint filed with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was dismissed last week.


“We had always contended Mr. Gross’ suit was baseless,” said Lia T. LoBello, the company’s spokeswoman. “Mr. Gross was separated from the company following an investigation for violating company policies, including our harassment prevention policy, among others. In his suit, Mr. Gross makes many false allegations.”

Jeanne M. Christensen, an attorney for Gross, countered that the dismissal was “technical” — the dismissal said the complaint was not filed in a timely fashion — and did not address the merits of the case. Christensen said they intend to file an objection to the dismissal and she added that it will not prevent Gross from seeking legal recourse in a Pennsylvania court for his alleged wrongful termination.

The 43-page complaint, in addition to accusing top company officials of silencing Gross and threatening his law credentials, revealed that Saint-Gobain had purchased and used significant quantities of pure perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, at its manufacturing facilities in Hoosick Falls, as well as at similar manufacturing sites in Bennington and Merrimack, where the plants were also found to have contaminated groundwater supplies.

Gross said that in early 2020, he was tasked with “performing an analysis of options for shifting some of Saint-Gobain’s mounting financial and legal liability to raw material suppliers who manufactured PFOA-containing products, principally 3M.”

In response, Gross said, he enlisted outside lawyers to conduct electronic searches of “millions of documents” that had been gathered in the various class-action lawsuits filed against the company, including cases in federal courts in Albany and Vermont.

The data search focused on finding documents revealing evidence of 3M’s sales of PFOA products to the company’s sites in Hoosick Falls, Bennington and Merrimack. Gross also interviewed “fact witnesses,” his complaint said, who had direct knowledge of the company’s use of a 3M product, “F-143” or “Fluorad,” which contained 100 percent PFOA.

Potentially thousands of pounds of the product were used at the three manufacturing sites, the complaint states.

“Since this product was pure PFOA, it contained orders of magnitude more PFOA by volume than even the highest-content PTFE aqueous dispersions typically used in Saint-Gobain’s operations,” the complaint states.

Gross said he also warned Carol Gray, the multi-national company’s former deputy general counsel for North America, that regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, “may be relying on flawed input data and failing to consider the relative potency of different PFOA-containing products used by Saint-Gobain.”

In December 2014, Keller and Heckman, a Washington, D.C., law firm, sent a letter to the U.S. EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act informing federal regulators that PFOA had been detected in “recent tests” of the public drinking water supplies.

The letter was sent months after Michael Hickey a village trustee, launched his own investigation of the pollution after his father and other village residents died from cancer. That year, Hickey had been battling with village officials to have the water tested for PFOA following research he had done after noticing what he believed were a high number of cancer cases in the small community. Facing roadblocks from village officials, Hickey personally sent water samples to a Canadian lab that reported levels of PFOA that the EPA later said were not safe for human consumption.

But the December 2014 letter by the company’s attorneys implied its manufacturing facilities were not users of PFOA.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics “processes fluoropolymers at a facility within the village that were made with PFOA, but it is not and never has been a manufacturer, processor, distributor or user of PFOA per se anywhere in the United States,” the letter stated.

LoBello, the company’s spokeswoman, acknowledged on Friday that Saint-Gobain’s plant in Hoosick Falls had used polytetrafluoroethylene — or PTFE — a synthetic fluoropolymer that is more commonly associated with Teflon, a compound discovered by Dupont in 1938. The plant had used the toxic chemical to manufacture products such as specialty tapes and heat-resistant wiring.

“All such PTFE came from our suppliers,” LoBello said. “However, the plant phased out significant portions of these processes in the early 2000s and phased out use of other types of PTFE that may have contained PFOA by 2015 in accordance with the U.S. EPA’s environmental stewardship program. It wouldn’t be accurate to say we never used the material — but we weren’t a manufacturer or distributor of it.”

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who was involved in the early stages of investigating the Hoosick Falls Superfund site, characterized the disclosure by Gross about the company’s significantly higher use of pure PFOA as “truly troubling revelations.”

“Our major problem in Hoosick Falls was the company not informing all the regulatory agencies of the seriousness of this problem and not in a timely fashion. They did not take responsible action while they knew the public was drinking contaminated water,” Enck said. Now, “the increased toxicity of what was used at the factory needs to be factored in to all regulatory decisions going forward and it would be appropriate for the federal government to launch  an enforcement investigation on the company.”

Attorneys for plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in U.S. District Court in Vermont seized on Gross’ accusations earlier this month. On April 12, they filed a motion seeking to reopen discovery in their case and accused Saint-Gobain, if the allegations are true, of concealing evidence.

“Although this information was brought to the attention of Saint-Gobain’s corporate executives, they and the company may have deliberately failed to alert governmental regulators or correct or amend initial disclosures or expert reports in this litigation (and others),” the motion states. “The complaint also alleges that as more evidence came to light during discovery in the class-action litigations, including this one, about the extent of Saint-Gobain’s PFOA contamination at its facilities, it failed to investigate or alert authorities, despite the serious public health threat, and instead allegedly engaged in an approach of deliberate failure to investigate.”

Saint-Gobain denies Gross’ account that Tom Kinisky, the former CEO of Saint-Gobain North America, had directed Gross during a 2019 meeting at their corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania not to investigate PFOA contamination at the company’s other sites, including a plant in Wayne, N.J.

“If you look, you will find it. If you don’t, you can say you didn’t know,” Gross alleged Kinisky had told him during that meeting. 

LoBello said that Gross’ additional claims that Saint-Gobain did not investigate pollution at other sites, including the New Jersey plant, are wrong. She said remediation at that plant has been underway “for years” and under guidance from the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

“There are numerous publicly available documents and even newspaper notices that show the work being done in Wayne and given his position in the company at that time, Mr. Gross was fully aware of these actions,” she said. “Also, those same documents will show no danger to residential wells and that PFAS around the site poses no danger to humans.”

Gross also raised concerns about Saint-Gobain plants polluting water supplies or groundwater in Mantua, Ohio, and New Haven, Conn.

In October, Gross said he was summoned to join a conference call at Saint-Gobain with a human resources employee and the company’s head of business compliance. He was told that he was under investigation for “insubordination” and accused of making disparaging remarks about another employee.

Gross, in his complaint, said he told those company officials about his investigative efforts to protect the company from future liability, including “whether public health threats existed at the other PFOA sites.”

After the call ended, Gross memorialized in writing what he had told the two officials and immediately sent the information to them in an email. He was fired about 45 minutes later, he said.

Saint-Gobain has operated a plant on McCaffrey Street in Hoosick Falls since the 1990s. The plant is adjacent to the village’s water treatment plant, which pulls water from underground wells that have been polluted with PFOA. Honeywell’s predecessor corporation, Allied Signal, operated the facility from 1986 to 1996, one of five companies that operated the plant since 1956.

The plant was designated a federal Superfund site in July 2017 by the EPA. 

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, which acquired a company that previously operated the McCaffrey Street plant, are working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on securing potential alternate water supplies for the village. Until then, the village is relying on a filtration system to remove PFOA from its water supplies.

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