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Du Pont offers a challenge on fungicide

The chairman of the Du Pont Co. issued a winner-take-all deal Wednesday to growers suing the company over its Benlate fungicide:

Test your plants with Benlate, and if they die, Du Pont pays. If they live, drop your lawsuit.

The challenge from chairman Edgar S. Woolard Jr. comes less than three weeks before the chemical giant goes on trial in federal court in Georgia over its fungicide Benlate DF.

Georgia growers are suing Du Pont, alleging Benlate caused extensive damage to their crops. More than 400 lawsuits have been filed nationwide, including Florida, Hawaii and Michigan, alleging the fungicide caused millions of dollars in damage.

Du Pont denies the fungicide is responsible. Woolard said the company is ready to go to trial and has not tried to negotiate an out-of-court settlement.

But he said the challenge to test the fungicide with plants at leading horticulture universities was in response to negative publicity the company has received over the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 6.

"We are not prepared to be hammered every day in the paper by some outrageous claim of coverup" or other accusations, Woolard said. "We must deal with these accusations for the benefit of our major constituencies, who will eventually begin to wonder is there some coverup if Du Pont doesn't take actions to ensure there is not."

C. Neal Pope, attorney for the plaintiffs in Georgia, said the challenge is not feasible and there is no way the tests could be conducted fairly.

"If it were that simple it would be fine. But unfortunately, after a year and half of investigation, it's just not that simple," Pope said.

"The question is not so much whether the plants die. The question is whether or not the product was contaminated and caused damage to the plant," he said.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford called the challenge a "transparent public relations maneuver."

"Mr. Woolard knows that not every batch of Benlate will produce damage in every test situation. Not every farmer who used Benlate suffered damage. That doesn't exonerate Benlate from the damage that it did cause," Crawford said.

Crawford has subpoenaed Woolard and other Du Pont executives for questioning.

Woolard said Du Pont would not comply with the subpoenas because he did not like the forum. Woolard said the company would be willing to talk with Crawford in a scientific forum.

Crawford has accused the company of withholding documents that allegedly show Benlate damaged crops. He challenged the company to "put all your documents, scientific data and other information on the table, and let the public, the courts and the scientific community decide for themselves if Benlate was the cause of this unprecedented damage."

U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott, who will hear the Georgia case, has fined the company $1-million for failure to turn over documents to the plaintiffs.

Elliott has reserved the right to cancel or reduce the fine, depending on whether he believes Du Pont has cooperated in providing the information.