Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

A Struggling Arch Coal Deserves Little Sympathy

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

archcoalArch Coal recently became the latest and largest coal producer to seek protection in Chapter 11. The company has also lost its listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Arch vows to go on operating but faces a very uncertain future.

It’s difficult to summon much sympathy for Arch or its struggling competitors. While its workers deserve a just transition to new livelihoods, Arch deserves to fade away. The main reason, of course, is the coal industry’s outsize contribution to the climate crisis, but a look at Arch’s track record shows a string of other major negative impacts.

Pollution. Arch’s first big environmental controversy occurred in 1996, when a massive mine waste spill at the operations of its Lone Mountain subsidiary in Virginia contaminated 30 miles of rivers and streams, killing thousands of fish. The company was hit with a $1.4 million state fine, one of the largest in Virginia’s history.

Arch also became a bigger target for environmental activists when it escalated its involvement in mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. It took advantage of the Bush Administration’s support for the controversial practice and resisted when the Obama Administration moved to tighten the rules. In 2010 an Arch subsidiary sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the planned revocation of a permit for a large mountaintop project in West Virginia that the agency decided would do irreversible damage to the environment. The EPA stood its ground, and when the revocation for the Spruce No.1 Mine was formally announced, Arch said it was “shocked and dismayed” and charged that the decision “will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment.” Arch took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and was rebuffed at every stage.

In 2011 the EPA and the Justice department announced that Arch would pay $4 million to settle alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. As part of the settlement, Arch was required to take steps to prevent an estimated two million pounds of pollution from entering waterways, including the implementation of a system to reduce selenium discharges. That same year, Arch paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit brought environmental groups over the selenium issue in West Virginia.

In 2015 Arch had to pay another $2 million to the federal government to settle similar alleged violations by 14 subsidiaries connected to its International Coal Group operations in five states.

Federal Leasing. Arch is one of a handful of companies taking advantage of a non-competitive program that allows coal operators to lease federal land at below-market rates. A 2012 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimated that over 30 years the Treasury lost $28.9 billion in revenue from the failure to obtain fair market value for the coal extracted from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the country’s largest coal-producing region. A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014 also found a pattern of undervaluing coal leases, as did a 2015 report by Headwater Economics estimating that two reform options would have generated additional revenue ranging from $850 million to $5.5 billion for the 2008-2012 period.

In 2014 the Western Organization of Resource Councils and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit asking that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management be required to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact review of the federal leasing program. The last time such an assessment was done was in 1979. Arch’s Chapter 11 filing came just days before the Obama Administration announced the suspension of new federal coal leases.

Mine Safety. A 2003 inspection of Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine in Wyoming by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration resulted in more than 50 violations. Two miners had been killed at the massive operation in the previous 12 months. In 2015 MSHA issued an imminent danger order at Black Thunder.

There have been other fatalities at Arch operations, including one at a Kentucky mine in 2013 that MSHA found had occurred after the company knew of a significant danger but failed to take proper precautions.

The most serious accident associated with Arch was the 2006 disaster at the Sago Mine run by a subsidiary of International Coal Group, which became part of Arch in 2011. Twelve miners died in a methane gas explosion at the West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial. Investigations of the accident by the state and the company suggested that lightning had set off the explosion, whereas a United Mine Workers report concluded that sparks generated by falling rocks inside the mine were the cause.

According to the Violation Tracker database, Arch’s current operations have been fined a total of more than $6.4 million by MSHA since the beginning of 2010.

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Note: This post is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Arch Coal, which can be found here.

DOJ’s Sputtering Case Against Volkswagen

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

An activist of the environmental protection organization 'Greenpeace' holds a protest poster in front of a factory gate of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, where the supervisory board meet to discuss who to name as CEO after Martin Winterkorn quit the job this week over an emissions-rigging scandal that's rocking the world's top-selling automaker. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

There’s a scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” in which a federal prosecutor tells Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) that the case against him for securities fraud was a “Grenada,” meaning that it was as unloseable as the 1983 U.S. invasion of that poorly defended Caribbean island.

The Justice Department has had another Grenada in recent months with the case against Volkswagen for systematically cheating on auto emissions tests. As the scope of the deception broadened to include millions of vehicles, VW effectively admitted guilt and put aside the equivalent of about $7 billion to resolve the issue, later acknowledging that sum would not be enough.

After three months of preparation, Justice has filed its case yet is failing to make full use of its leverage against the automaker. As a result, it could end up with only a modest win against one of the most egregious cases of corporate environmental fraud this country has ever seen.

The biggest disappointment is DOJ’s decision to forgo criminal charges and handle this solely as a civil matter. Admittedly, prosecutors were confronted with the fact that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the auto industry from criminal penalties. Yet there appeared to be ways to get around this limitation by alleging fraud, for instance, given that there was apparently a deliberate effort to deceive the federal government about emissions. It’s not clear why DOJ rejected this approach and did not even use the frequent gambit of pursuing a criminal case and then offering the company a deferred- or non-prosecution agreement. Those options are problematic, but with them criminal charges are at least part of the picture rather than being left out entirely.

Also frustrating is the failure of Justice to bring charges (civil or criminal) against individual VW executives. This flies in the face of the department’s hyped announcement in September of a new policy of holding individuals accountable for corporate misconduct. Charging senior VW officers was all the more important in light of indications that the company has been seeking ways to place the blame on lower-level engineers.

It is disturbing to think that VW may have intimidated DOJ away from an aggressive prosecution. Although the scope of the scandal has widened, taking in more of the company’s brands in more countries, VW seems to be adopting a less conciliatory posture than it did earlier in the case. In fact, the DOJ complaint accuses the company of impeding and obstructing the investigation through “material omissions and misleading information” — accusations that make the absence of criminal charges all the more bewildering.

It is likely that VW will have to pay billions of dollars to resolve the charges against it. This is right and proper, but is it enough? Corporations from BP to Bank of America have gotten used to buying their way out of legal jeopardy, treating fines and settlements as (often tax deductible) costs of doing business. Those costs have been rising — BP has had to pay out more than $24 billion in connection with its Gulf of Mexico disaster — but there is little evidence that the penalties are having the intended deterrent effect.

Criminal charges are not a panacea. They’ve been brought against BP, several large banks and other companies yet no longer have the same bite. Several banks, for instance, have received waivers from SEC rules barring criminals from the securities business.

Yet at least there is the possibility of applying criminal penalties more aggressively. Going the purely civil route, as Justice is doing with VW, guarantees from the start that the case will be little more than a financial transaction. In a case of deliberate and widespread deception with severe environmental and health impacts, that’s simply not good enough.

The 2015 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

gotojailThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2015. BP paid a record $20 billion to settle the remaining civil charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster (on top of the $4 billion in previous criminal penalties), and Volkswagen is facing perhaps even greater liability in connection with its scheme to evade emission standards.

Other automakers and suppliers were hit with large penalties for safety violations, including a $900 million fine (and deferred criminal prosecution) for General Motors, a record civil penalty of $200 million for Japanese airbag maker Takata, penalties of $105 million and $70 million for Fiat Chrysler, and $70 million for Honda.

Major banks continued to pay large penalties to resolve a variety of legal entanglements. Five banks (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) had to pay a total of $2.5 billion to the Justice Department and $1.8 billion to the Federal Reserve in connection with charges that they conspired to manipulate foreign exchange markets. The DOJ case was unusual in that the banks had to enter guilty pleas, but it is unclear that this hampered their ability to conduct business as usual.

Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay more than $5 billion to resolve charges relating to toxic dumping by Kerr-McGee, which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006. In another major environmental case, fertilizer company Mosaic agreed to resolve hazardous waste allegations at eight facilities by creating a $630 million trust fund and spending $170 million on mitigation projects.

These examples and the additional ones below were assembled with the help of Violation Tracker, the new database of corporate misconduct my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced this year. The database currently covers environmental, health and safety cases from 13 federal agencies, but we will be adding other violation categories in 2016.

Deceptive financial practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Citibank $700 million for the deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

Cheating depositors. Citizens Bank was fined $18.5 million by the CFPB for pocketing the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred.

Overcharging customers. An investigation by officials in New York City found that pre-packaged products at Whole Foods had mislabeled weights, resulting in grossly inflated unit prices.

Food contamination. In a rare financial penalty in a food safety case, a subsidiary of ConAgra was fined $11.2 million for distributing salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

Adulterated medication. Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeill-PPC entered a guilty plea and paid $25 million in fines and forfeiture in connection with charges that it sold adulterated children’s over-the-counter medications.

Illegal marketing. Sanofi subsidiary Genzyme Corporation entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a penalty of $32.6 million in connection with charges that it promoted its Seprafilm devices for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Failure to report safety defects. Among the companies hit this year with civil penalties by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failing to promptly report safety hazards were: General Electric ($3.5 million fine), Office Depot ($3.4 million) and LG Electronics ($1.8 million).

Workplace hazards. Tuna producer Bumble Bee agreed to pay $6 million to settle state charges that it willfully violated worker safety rules in connection with the death of an employee who was trapped in an industrial oven at the company’s plant in Southern California.

Sanctions violations. Deutsche Bank was fined $258 million for violations in connection with transactions on behalf of countries (such as Iran and Syria) and entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

Air pollution. Glass manufacturer Guardian Industries settled Clean Air Act violations brought by the EPA by agreeing to spend $70 million on new emission controls.

Ocean dumping. An Italian company called Carbofin was hit with a $2.75 million criminal fine for falsifying its records to hide the fact that it was using a device known as a “magic hose” to dispose of sludge, waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge water directly into the sea rather than using required pollution prevention equipment.

Climate denial. The New York Attorney General is investigating whether Exxon Mobil deliberately deceived shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

False claims. Millennium Health agreed to pay $256 million to resolve allegations that it billed Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs for unnecessary tests.

Illegal lobbying. Lockheed Martin paid $4.7 million to settle charges that it illegally used government money to lobby federal officials for an extension of its contract to run the Sandia nuclear weapons lab.

Price-fixing. German auto parts maker Robert Bosch was fined $57.8 million after pleading guilty to Justice Department charges of conspiring to fix prices and rig bids for spark plugs, oxygen sensors and starter motors sold to automakers in the United States and elsewhere.

Foreign bribery. Goodyear Tire & Rubber paid $16 million to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that company subsidiaries paid bribes to obtain sales in Kenya and Angola.

Wage theft. Oilfield services company Halliburton paid $18 million to resolve Labor Department allegations that it improperly categorized more than 1,000 workers to deny them overtime pay.

A Chemical Industry Marriage Not Made in Heaven

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

dow-dupontA corporation once known as the Merchant of Death because it dominated the gunpowder market wants to unite with a company that became notorious for its production of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The proposed merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical is not a marriage made in heaven.

The more recent track records of the two chemical giants are also seriously tarnished, raising questions as to whether the plan for a merger and then breakup is really a ploy to evade liability — something each of the companies has done in the past.

DuPont’s feel-good postwar campaign promoting “better living through chemistry” gave way to a series of environmental controversies. In the 1970s and 1980s the issue was the company’s production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) like Freon, which were destroying the earth’s ozone layer. After resisting for years, DuPont finally agreed to phase out production of CFCs but sought to use substitutes that were also harmful.

In 1989 evidence emerged that the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, which DuPont had built and operated for the federal government since 1951, had serious structural flaws and safety problems that the company failed to report. Numerous accidents at the South Carolina facility, which made plutonium and the tritium gas needed in nuclear warheads, were also kept secret.

DuPont was a pioneer in developing perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), one of the most highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent and likely carcinogenic group of chemicals that work their way into the bloodstream of humans and wildlife. DuPont’s highest profile PFC-based product was Teflon, best known for its use in non-stick cookware. In 2004 the EPA charged that for two decades DuPont failed to report signs of health and environmental problems linked to perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), the PFC used in making Teflon. Residents living near the plant in West Virginia where DuPont produced PFOA sued the company, which agreed to pay about $100 million to settle the case and spend up to $235 million on medical monitoring of residents, which is ongoing. DuPont also paid $16.5 million to settle the EPA charges and later agreed to gradually phase out PFOA.

In 2014 a leak of methyl mercaptan (used in the production of pesticides) at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas caused the death of four workers. In July 2015 OSHA proposed fines of $273,000 in connection with the accident and put DuPont on its severe violator list.

This year, DuPont spun off numerous facilities with tainted environmental and safety records into a new company called Chemours. There was immediate concern expressed by groups such as Keep Your Promises DuPont that the ownership change would impair the commitments DuPont had made to deal with toxic waste sites and other contaminated areas. One of those areas was Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont had produced Teflon.

DuPont’s initial SEC filing about Chemours disclosed that the new company would begin life with some $298 million in environmental liabilities but acknowledged that the total could rise to 3.5 times that amount.

Dow Chemical was involved in one of the most controversial cases of liability evasion: its decision to do nothing for the victims of the Bhopal disaster after acquiring Union Carbide, the company whose subsidiary operated the pesticide plant where in 1984 a vast quantity of highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas was released. More than 8,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and many thousands more suffered serious harms from exposure to the gas, including genetic damage that affected their offspring.

Union Carbide paid compensation of $470 million, far below what many advocates felt was necessary to care for the victims and their families. After the merger, Bhopal advocates began to pressure Dow to do more, but the company insisted that it had not assumed Union Carbide’s liabilities and thus had no responsibility to help.

Dow’s sins are not all inherited. In the 1980s its Dow Corning subsidiary was hit with class action lawsuits filed by women claiming that they had developed autoimmune diseases as a result of silicone leakage from breast implants produced by the company. In 1992, following a review of Dow Corning internal company documents suggesting that the implants had been rushed to market without complete safety tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called for a moratorium on new implants. The New York Times reported that the documents revealed that Dow Corning executives had delayed conducting critical safety studies for more than a decade.

In 2011 Dow had to pay $2.5 million to settle EPA allegations that the company’s complex in Midland, Michigan violated the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in a host of ways at its chemical, pharmaceutical, and pesticide plants.

Given the histories of these two companies, the proposed merger of DuPont and Dow deserves the utmost scrutiny so that the needs not only of shareholders but also their victims are addressed.

The Corporate Wrongdoers Sticking with ALEC

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

ALECexposedLogo_400x400vt_logo-full_1If a group of major drug dealers, identity thieves and bank robbers were to put out a statement calling for relaxation of the criminal code, no one would take it very seriously.

Yet complaints about the regulatory system coming from large corporations — including many with repeated environmental and safety violations — are regarded as important pronouncements by too many policymakers and political candidates. Corporate interests don’t simply complain. They use their money and influence to urge lawmakers to alter the rules in their favor.

One of the main vehicles by which big business pushes its deregulatory agenda is the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, which is currently holding one of its periodic gatherings of corporate lobbyists and legislators, takes aim at agencies such as the EPA, which it likes to call a “regulatory train wreck.”

Since my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First released our Violation Tracker database recently, I’ve been comparing notes with the ALEC watchers at the Center for Media and Democracy. What we’ve found is a substantial overlap between the corporations that remain loyal to ALEC (more than 100 have left in response to public pressure) and the companies in Tracker with the largest penalty totals. Mary Bottari of CMD has posted a piece that focuses on the energy companies in the two groups. Here I look at the full overlap.

The current list of ALEC corporate members includes 11 corporations that rank in the Violation Tracker top 100 (in a few cases the membership is held by a subsidiary). These parents and their subsidiaries have racked up a total of $1.7 billion in federal environmental, health and safety penalties and settlements since the beginning of 2010:

  • Pfizer: $563,357,650
  • Novartis: $422,569,368
  • WEC Energy Group: $310,621,475
  • Duke Energy: $112,150,534
  • Honeywell International: $93,641,829
  • Berkshire Hathaway: $46,810,063
  • Exxon Mobil: $46,285,706
  • Energy Transfer: $25,467,251
  • Dominion Resources: $14,168,658
  • Norfolk Southern: $11,675,325
  • Chevron: $11,373,376

Pfizer is in the news because of its deal to merge with a smaller drug company and move its legal headquarters to Ireland, all to dodge federal taxes. It has amassed more than half a billion dollars in penalties in the past five years largely because of cases involving the illegal marketing of drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2009, the year before Violation Tracker’s coverage begins, Pfizer had to pay $2.3 billion to settle Justice Department civil and criminal charges relating to the illegal marketing of the painkiller Bextra and three other medications. John Kopchinski, a former Pfizer sales representative whose complaint helped bring about the federal investigation, told the New York Times: “The whole culture of Pfizer is driven by sales, and if you didn’t sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player.”

Novartis has also been accused of illegal marketing of drugs and has had to pay more than $400 million in penalties. Not yet included in Violation Tracker is a case in which federal prosecutors are seeking $3 billion in penalties from the company for paying illegal kickbacks to get pharmacies to encourage use of expensive drugs for kidney-transplant patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

WEC Energy Group, whose subsidiaries North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas are ALEC members, is on the top violators list mainly because of a $307 million settlement another subsidiary, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, reached with the Justice Department and the EPA to resolve Clean Air Act violations at two of its power plants. Most of the settlement involves mandatory spending on new pollution control technology at the facilities.

Duke Energy earned its spot on the top violators list mainly because of a case from earlier this year in which three of its subsidiaries pled guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and paid $102 million in penalties in connection with a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina.

The largest portion of Honeywell International‘s $93 million in penalties comes from a 2013 case in which it agreed to pay a $3 million civil penalty and spend $66 million on new pollution control equipment to resolve Clean Air Act violations at its plant in Hopewell, Virginia.

Conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway is on the list because one of its major subsidiaries, BNSF Railway, is an ALEC member. While it has not been involved in any large cases like those above, since 2010 BNSF has accumulated more than 600 violations from the Federal Railroad Administration with total penalties of $7 million (the FRA’s fines tend to be less than onerous). BNSF was also pressured by OSHA to change its practices that the agency said discouraged workers from reporting on-the-job injuries.

Exxon Mobil‘s penalty total comes largely from its subsidiary XTO Energy, which focuses on fracking. For example, in 2013 XTO had to pay $20.1 million to the EPA to settle Clean Air Act violations linked to the discharge of wastewater in Pennsylvania.

These cases illustrate the track record of the companies that are sticking with ALEC, presumably with the hope that the organization can bring about policy changes that will allow them to continue business as usual and pay less in the way of penalties. ALEC may be correct that the regulatory system is a “train wreck,” but that’s because the rules are too weak, not too stringent.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Alcoa is doing it. So is Hewlett-Packard.

They’re following the lead of corporations such as General Electric, Time Warner, Gannett and W.R. Grace. The “it” is splitting up the company into two independent firms.

The reasons for these break-ups are not always clear. In announcing the plan for Alcoa, Klaus Kleinfeld declared: “In the last few years, we have successfully transformed Alcoa to create two strong value engines that are now ready to pursue their own distinctive strategic directions.” Why those “engines” cannot remain under the same corporate roof was not explained. Kleinfeld described the split as “the next step” for two businesses ready to “seize the future.”

What are really being seized are the giant fees charged by investment banks to cook up these schemes, often for companies that previously retained their services to arrange marriages they are now seeking to undo. Like much of what passes for corporate strategies, “demergers” as well as mergers are expensive guesses as to what will result in maximum profits. They need not be taken too seriously.

Yet sometimes breakups are a lot less benign. Take the case of chemical giant DuPont, which a few months ago split itself up with the creation of a spinoff called Chemours. Sounding like the Alcoa guy, then-DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman announced the plan late last year by saying that the parts of the company being divided from one another had “distinct value creation strategies.”

Yet it turned out that the businesses to be transferred to Chemours included those with the most serious environmental, health and safety problems. There was immediate concern expressed by groups such as Keep Your Promises DuPont that the ownership change would impair the commitments DuPont had made to deal with toxic waste sites and other contaminated areas.

One of those areas was Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont had produced Teflon. In 2004 the Environmental Protection Agency charged that for two decades DuPont failed to report signs of health and environmental problems linked to perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), which is used in making Teflon. Residents living near the plant sued the company, which agreed to pay out about $100 million to settle the case and spend up to $235 million on medical monitoring of residents, which is ongoing. That obligation has presumably transferred to Chemours, but there are concerns that the new firm may not be able to handle the costs.

DuPont’s initial SEC filing about Chemours disclosed that the new company would begin life with some $298 million in environmental liabilities but acknowledged that the total could rise to 3.5 times that amount.

If DuPont thinks that it has washed its hands completely of these liabilities as a result of the Chemours spinoff, a case involving Anadarko Petroleum suggests that it may be mistaken. A decade ago, Anadarko acquired Kerr-McGee, on oil and nuclear fuel company made infamous in the scandal involving Karen Silkwood. In preparation for the takeover, Kerr-McGee had broken itself up, dumping its major liabilities into a new firm called Tronox, which later when bankrupt.

A legal battle over Tronox’s environmental obligations was finally resolved earlier this year with Anadarko having to pay more than $5 billion to cover cleanup costs. DuPont and Chemours, like Anadarko and Kerr-McGee and Tronox, may learn that breaking up can indeed be hard to do.

Note: The Anadarko settlement turns out to be the second largest entry in the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First will release on October 27.

Volkswagen Deserves Its Day in Criminal Court

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Volkswagen’s scheme to circumvent federal emissions regulations for millions of its cars cries out for tough prosecution. Yet it turns out that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the automobile industry from criminal penalties.

EPA and Justice Department prosecutors are apparently considering whether criminal charges can be brought under other statutes, but it remains to be seen whether they will be successful. An inability to do so would be a major embarrassment for DOJ, which recently proclaimed its intention to move away from deferred prosecution agreements and get tougher with corporate culprits.

In case anyone questions the appropriateness of criminal charges in environmental cases, it is worth recalling that this approach has ample precedents. While it is true that many of the cases in the EPA’s criminal docket involve individuals at fly-by-night firms, that’s not always the case.

In fact, as part of the preparation for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release later this month, I’ve been going through the records. Here are some of the highlights:

The granddaddy of criminal environmental cases was the prosecution of BP for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and did untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2012 BP pled guilty to environmental crimes (involving the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts) as well as felony manslaughter and obstruction of Congress. It was required to pay criminal fines and penalties of $4 billion.

In February 2013 Transocean, the company from which BP leased the ill-fated drilling rig, pleaded guilty to charges of violating the Clean Water Act in the period leading up to the accident and was sentenced to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties. Halliburton, which was responsible for cement work at the site, pleaded guilty to a charge of destroying evidence.

Oil companies are not the only defendants. In 2013 Wal-Mart Stores pleaded guilty to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail outlets across the country. It had to pay $81 million in penalties.

This year, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its facilities in North Carolina and paid a $68 million criminal fine and was required to spend $34 million on environmental projects.

Volkswagen certainly belongs on this dishonor roll of environmental culprits. In fact, it probably deserves harsher punishment than even BP, given the brazen and intentional aspects of its behavior.

In reporting on the auto industry loophole, the Wall Street Journal quoted former Michigan Rep. John Dingell as justifying the provision by saying that civil penalties were “easier, speedier quicker” than criminal sanctions and warning regarding the latter: “The risk of them going out of business is very real.”

In cases such as this one, the convenience of prosecutors should not be a priority, and there are many people who may think that VW’s disappearance would not be a bad thing.

Think Irresponsible

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

volkswagen-clean-diesel-ad.w529.h352In the competition among industries to see which can act in the most irresponsible manner, we have a new winner. After nearly a decade during which banks and oil giants like BP were the epitome of corporate misconduct, the big automakers are now on top.

The news that Volkswagen inserted devices in millions of its “clean diesel” cars to disguise their pollution levels is the latest in a series of major scandals involving car companies. It comes on the heels of criminal charges against General Motors for failing to report a safety defect linked to more than 100 deaths. The Justice Department, unfortunately, deferred prosecution of those charges in a deal that required GM to pay $900 million. That looks like a bargain compared to the possibility that the EPA could sock Volkswagen, which once employed an ad campaign called Think Small, with penalties of some $18 billion.

Last year, Justice announced a deferred prosecution agreement with Toyota that required the Japanese company to pay $1.2 billion to settle charges that it tried to cover up the causes of a sudden acceleration problem. Later that year, Hyundai and Kia had to pay $100 million to settle DOJ and EPA allegations that they understated greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1 million cars and trucks.

This past July, Fiat Chrysler was hit with by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a fine of $105 million — a record for that agency, which long had a cozy relationship with the industry — for deficiencies in its recall of defective vehicles.

Even Honda, which once had a squeaky clean reputation, was fined $70 million earlier this year by NHTSA for underreporting deaths and injuries relating to defective airbags. Those airbags were produced by the Japanese company Takata, which resisted making changes in its production process despite incidents in which the devices exploded violently, sending shrapnel flying into drivers and passengers.

The ascendance of the auto industry to the top of the corporate wrongdoing charts is actually an encore for what was a long-running performance. During the 1960s, GM inadvertently gave rise to the modern public interest movement in its ham-handed response to the issues raised by a young Ralph Nader about the safety problems of its Corvair compact. The 1970s were the era of the Ford Pinto with its fragile fuel tanks that blew up in even mild rear-end collisions. The 1990s were marked by the scandal over defective tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone.

Although carmakers were not in the forefront of corporate misbehavior during the past decade, the industry’s record was far from unblemished. In 2005 VW presaged its current problems when it paid $1.1 million to the Justice Department to settle allegations that it failed to notify regulators and correct a defective oxygen sensor in more than 300,000 Golfs, Jettas and New Beetles.

And to make matters worse, through these decades the auto giants kept up a drumbeat of criticism of supposed regulatory excesses and, in the cases of GM and Chrysler, did not hesitate to ask for large bailouts when their markets collapsed.

The American love affair with the automobile has also put us in bed with corporate irresponsibility on a major scale.

Big Coal’s War on Its Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

helmets_wide-b8e68ac63c226846ea9705fcf6fc13535c1b2b2e-s800-c85Fossil-fuel apologists have accused the Obama Administration of waging a war on coal in its effort to cut power plant greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the main source of the industry’s distress is the energy market, and the real war is the one coal companies have for years carried out against the health and safety of its workforce.

There’s no doubt that Big Coal is in trouble. One of the industry’s largest players, Alpha Natural Resources, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, following the path taken by competitors such as James River Coal, Walter Energy and Patriot Coal. Financial weakness prompted the delisting of Alpha and Walter Energy from the New York Stock Exchange. Industry leader Peabody Energy has seen its share price tumble even before the current market tumult. It is now trading at around $2 a share, compared to $70 in 2011.

Given the outsize role played by coal in the climate crisis, it is difficult to work up much sympathy for the industry in its time of trouble. While it is tempting to simply let the dirty industry shrink towards disappearance, there needs to be a just transition for those who have risked their lives extracting the fossilized carbon from the ground.

The magnitude of that risk has been made clear to me recently in the preparatory work I’ve been doing for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release this fall. The initial version will cover penalties imposed by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and, most relevant to the current discussion, the Mine Safety & Health Administration.

Based on preliminary results, it now appears that coal mining companies will turn out to be among the corporations with the largest aggregate federal environmental, health and safety penalties during the past five years. The largest mining offender is Alpha Natural Resources, whose penalty tally will top $100 million.

That reflects the fact that Alpha is now home to two of the most controversial firms in U.S. mining history: Pittston Coal and Massey Energy. Pittston had a long record of environmental and safety violations before its operations were used in the creation of Alpha in 2002, but even more notorious was Massey, which was responsible, among other things, for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia that took the lives of 29 workers, the most fatalities in a U.S. coal accident in 40 years. In the wake of that disaster, which an independent report attributed to management failures, Alpha agreed to purchase Massey. We thus attribute Massey’s violations to it.

At least 20 other coal mining companies will show up in Violation Tracker with $1 million or more in total penalties. The largest amounts, in excess of $30 million each, will be linked to Murray Energy, whose head Robert Murray has vowed his firm will be the “last man standing” in the coal industry, and Patriot Coal.

Patriot, a spinoff from Peabody Energy, is a prime example of the vindictiveness of the coal industry toward miners. Its Chapter 11 filing earlier this year was its second in three years. In both cases the company has tried to use the bankruptcy court as a way to undermine its contractual commitments to United Mine Workers members and retirees, especially with regard to pension and health plan contributions. Its current move against worker benefits comes as the company, which is trying to sell off its assets, is awarding more than $6 million in executive bonuses.

A repeated health and safety violator and a raider of worker benefits. It’s hard to imagine anyone will be sad to see Patriot disappear.

Replacing Pinstripes with Prison Jumpsuits

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Goodwin-1-e1440025102463-225x300We’ve just been treated to the rare sight of a corporate executive pleading guilty to criminal charges stemming from actions that harmed the public. This outcome was particularly satisfying given that the case was one that symbolized much of what is wrong with U.S. business and regulatory practices.

The culprit is Gary Southern, who was at the center of an incident last year in West Virginia whose details, I wrote at the time, sounded a parody: the company responsible for a toxic chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people and sickened many turned out to be named Freedom Industries and had been cofounded by a two-time convicted felon.

That felon was Carl Lemley Kennedy II, who was apparently no longer active in the company by the time the spill occurred. The man who had taken over was Southern, who is now a felon as well thanks to his plea on charges of violating the federal Clean Water Act. Five other Freedom executives had earlier admitted guilt and negligence in connection with an accident that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin (photo) called “completely preventable.” Southern faces up to three years in prison.

Goodwin had rejected calls to focus on restitution to the community and insisted on seeking prison time for Southern et al. “Executives are used to writing checks,” he said. “It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.”

A similar get-tough-on-business-crime attitude was recently displayed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who brought manslaughter charges against two construction managers (and the companies they worked for) in connection with the death of a worker earlier this year in an accident that occurred after the managers had, Vance alleged, ignored repeated warnings from inspectors about unsafe conditions on the site.

Let’s hope Goodwin’s message also gets through to prosecutors bringing cases against companies with a much bigger footprint than that of Freedom Industries and the New York construction firms. For a long time, large corporations and their top executives seemed to be immune from criminal prosecutions, no matter how serious the offense.

The Justice Department has started to give in to the pressure and get some big companies to plead guilty to criminal offenses, as occurred in May in a case involving allegations against Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase and other large banks in connection with the manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

Now it’s time for prosecutors to take the next step and bring individual criminal charges against Fortune 500 top executives involved in serious misconduct.

There’s no guarantee that a criminal conviction will completely reform a wayward businessperson. The Wall Street Journal has a piece about an accounting executive who, after being convicted of embezzlement and banned for life from the accounting profession, altered his name slightly (changing Stephen to Steven and adopting a different middle name) and went on providing accounting services with bogus credentials. The SEC eventually caught on and is going after him in court.

Yet we need to see whether individual prosecutions of top executives works. One way or another, we’ve got a find a way to bring an end to the corporate crime wave.