Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category

Preventing Death on the Job

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

dupont_laporteThe Occupational Safety & Health Administration recently put DuPont on its list of severe violators and proposed fines totaling $273,000 in connection with last year’s chemical leak at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas that killed four workers. OSHA called the deaths preventable and accused DuPont of having “a failed safety program.”

This was a severe blow to a company that prides itself on having a “world-class” safety system and which thinks so highly of its skills in this area that it provides safety consulting services to other companies. DuPont expressed disappointment at OSHA’s actions.

The gap between (self) image and reality is nothing new at DuPont. The company’s claims to be a safety leader are not recent measures to address the fallout from the deadly accident in Texas. In his 1984 book America’s Third Revolution: Public Interest and the Private Role, former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro called the company’s safety record “extraordinary” and made the preposterous claim that its employees “are safer on the job than at home.”

These statements flew in the face of safety problems at DuPont that extended back at least to the 1920s, when numerous workers were poisoned, some fatally, in connection with the production of tetraethyl lead for gasoline.

During the early 1970s, evidence began to emerge of high levels of bladder cancer among DuPont production workers, especially at the Chambers Works in New Jersey. Since at least the 1930s there had been evidence linking beta-nephthylamine (BNA), a chemical used in dye bases, to cancer. Yet the company went on producing BNA at Chambers until 1955, and after it was dropped DuPont went on making benzidine, another carcinogen, for ten more years.

In the years since Shapiro’s book, the safety problems have continued. In 1987 a New Jersey Superior Court jury found that DuPont officials and company doctors deliberately concealed medical records that showed six veteran maintenance workers had asbestos-related diseases linked to their jobs.  Also in 1987, the company agreed to pay fines totaling $11,100 as part of a settlement of OSHA charges relating to record-keeping at plants in Dallas and Niagara Falls, New York.

In 1995 oil company Conoco, then owned by DuPont, agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle OSHA charges related to an explosion and fire the year before that killed a worker at a refinery in Louisiana.

In 1999 OSHA announced that DuPont would pay $70,000 to settle charges that it failed to record more than 100 injury and illness cases at its plant in Seaford, Delaware.

In 2010 OSHA criticized DuPont for exposing employees to hazardous chemicals at its plant in Belle, West Virginia, where a worker had died after a ruptured hose released a large quantity of phosgene gas. The following year, OSHA cited DuPont for dangerous conditions after a contract welder was killed when sparks set off an explosion in a slurry tank at a plant in Buffalo, New York. In 2012 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board added its criticism of the company in connection with the Buffalo accident.

In short, the accident at La Porte, which had a history of previous violations, is far from an anomaly for DuPont. The only surprising aspect of the story is why OSHA did not come down on the company much harder.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book Why Not Jail?, has posted an article criticizing OSHA for not seeking criminal charges against DuPont. The Corporate Crime Reporter notes that OSHA chief David Michaels, asked about Steinzor’s critique at a recent press conference, dismissed her piece but did not explain why the DuPont case did not merit a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

OSHA has long been reluctant to go the criminal route, relying instead on civil proceedings and ridiculously low financial penalties. In its latest Death on the Job report, the AFL-CIO notes that since the agency was created fewer than 100 criminal enforcement cases have been pursued. During this same period there have been more than 390,000 workplace fatalities.

The agency’s willingness to put a large company like DuPont on the severe violators list, which is dominated by smaller firms, especially in the construction industry, is a step forward. But OSHA will need to do a lot more to address the ongoing tragedy of workplace fatalities and disease.

Color-Coded Cancer Sticks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

colorcodedcigsAt the headquarters of Reynolds American (parent of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) in North Carolina and the Virginia headquarters of Altria (parent of Philip Morris USA) time is apparently running backwards. The two companies just filed a lawsuit in DC federal court that reads like it was written in 1995, not 2015.

The target of the suit (15-CV-00544) is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which the companies apparently have forgotten was given authority by Congress in 2009 to regulate tobacco marketing, including the introduction of new products. That law came after years of vociferous opposition by Big Tobacco.

What has the companies up in arms is an FDA guidance document issued in March concerning review requirements for packaging changes. The agency takes the position that certain modifications in background color, logo and descriptors can be significant enough to trigger the stricter rules regarding new products.

Presenting themselves as victims of government overreach, the companies argue that their First Amendment rights are being violated: “FDA’s unlawful actions already have harmed Plaintiffs and threaten greater harms in the future by restricting Plaintiffs’ ability to modify their product labels without FDA preauthorization and by chilling and restricting protected speech.”

Although the case does not involve the federal warning labels that have been required for decades, it makes the puzzling argument that the FDA guidelines also violate the industry’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

While it is not unusual for big business to assert free speech rights to oppose regulations, this position is particularly galling when it comes from the tobacco industry. These are the companies, after all, that for decades concealed and denied the hazards of smoking, asserting it was their right to “believe” their products were non-addictive and did not cause cancer despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Their dishonest claims were made all the more fraudulent when documents came to light indicating that firms such as Brown & Williamson (now part of Reynolds American) knew about the dangers at least as far back as the early 1960s.

The issue of control over tobacco packaging was already fought, and the industry lost. In 2006 a federal court, finding that the industry had caused “an immeasurable amount of suffering,” ordered it stop labeling cigarettes with designations such as low tar, light and natural that gave the misleading impression that they were safe.

Tobacco companies began using techniques such as package coloring to get around the restriction. In 2010 a New York Times article on the practice quoted Prof. Gregory Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health as saying the industry was “circumventing the law.” He added: “They’re using color coding to perpetuate one of the biggest public health myths into the next century.”

At the heart of the new case is the tension between public policies designed to discourage tobacco use and the continued existence of an industry which has to attract customers to survive. The industry’s lawsuit, with its assertion of free speech rights, proceeds from the assumption that producing and selling tobacco products is a legitimate activity. A more appropriate premise might be that tobacco is a public health menace that should be controlled as tightly as possible until the last smoker has kicked the habit and the companies can shut down.

Big Tobacco would do well to stop wrapping itself in the Bill of Rights and acknowledge that it is lucky it is still allowed to sell its deadly products at all.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheets on Reynolds American and Altria.

Smokeless Tobacco and Toothless Regulation

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

snusIt took decades for the federal government to overcome tobacco industry deception and adopt warning labels for cigarette packages in the 1960s. It took three more decades before the Food and Drug Administration was given the authority to regulate both the content of tobacco products and their marketing.

Now a branch of the industry is seeking to turn back the clock with regard to a specific product. Swedish Match is petitioning the FDA to drop the customary dire warning requirements for its smokeless tobacco called snus, which is sold as small packages that the user tucks between the lip and the gums.

Giving in to the Swedish Match proposal for a “light” warning that in effect says that snus is not as harmful as cigarettes would begin to differentiate the regulation of different types of tobacco products. It would be a coup not only for Swedish Match but potentially for makers of e-cigarettes, who also claim to be selling something safer than regular cancer sticks. Swedish Match, by the way, does not sell cigarettes, but it does produce cigars and chewing tobacco.

Yet perhaps the worst impact of granting Swedish Match’s request is that it would begin to restore credibility to an industry whose level of irresponsibility is perhaps unmatched in the world of business. Let’s recall the history.

Warnings about the harmful effects of smoking date back at least to the early 1950s, when Reader’s Digest published a widely discussed article on the subject. Rather than address the underlying issues, Big Tobacco started promoting filtered cigarettes, especially the R.J. Reynolds brand Winston, as a supposedly safer alternative. Reynolds also tried to give a healthier allure to its unfiltered Camels with an ad campaign claiming they were smoked by more doctors than any other brand. Lorillard promoted its Micronite filter as the greatest protection in cigarette history (much later it came out that the filter contained asbestos).

The same thing happened after the publication of the famous 1964 Surgeon General report on the dangers of smoking. While refusing to acknowledge the growing body of evidence, the industry stepped up its marketing efforts and introduced new products, such as Philip Morris’s low-tar Merit brand, that deceived consumers into thinking they were less deleterious.

Along with the warning labels, Congress banned cigarette advertising on radio and television, yet the tobacco companies used other channels. Reynolds egregiously sought to hook youngsters with its ads featuring a friendly cartoon character named Joe Camel.

Philip Morris, whose parent company is now called Altria, took another tack that was also in its own way pernicious. Once it became clear that federal regulation was coming, the company jumped on the bandwagon but slowed it down by pushing for oversight only on marketing to children. The well-funded argument that smoking was a legitimate adult activity slowed the push toward more comprehensive regulation and caused countless deaths.

Although the industry eventually had to accept such regulation in the United States, it is doing its best to thwart protections elsewhere, especially in smaller and poorer countries. Philip Morris International, which was spun off by Altria into a separate company, has tried to bully nations such as Uruguay and Togo into abandoning strong anti-smoking policies by threatening to drag them into expensive legal proceedings under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.

Swedish Match may protest that it has not been involved in many of these practices, yet it is a dominant player in the market for chewing tobacco, which like cigarettes is linked to cancer. It is also worth noting that the company was built by Ivar Kreuger, whose financial empire turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that collapsed during the Great Depression.

Whether or not there are significant differences between the health effects of cigarettes and snus, federal officials should do nothing to weaken a regulatory system that remains vitally important for public health.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Altria and Philip Morris International as well as a soon-to-be-posted one on Reynolds American.

Debunking Anti-Regulatory Rhetoric

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

dimonBelief in the infallibility of papal pronouncements is not as great as it used to be, but conservatives have lost none of their reverence for the statements of corporate executives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the new Congress, where Republicans seem preoccupied with addressing calls for regulatory “reform” from business leaders.

The vote in the House to begin gutting Dodd-Frank is the case in point. Conservatives appear to have taken to heart the dubious complaints by banks that they are being crippled by what are actually far from draconian restrictions.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is keeping up the drumbeat, telling reporters the other day that “banks are under assault.” Would that it were so. Dimon cited as “evidence” the fact that his institution needs to deal with multiple regulatory agencies: “You should all ask the question about how American that is, how fair that is.”

First of all, the fragmentation of bank regulation in the United States is an old issue that has nothing to do with the severity of the oversight. Several agencies treating banks with kid gloves do not amount to something more onerous than having one do so.

What makes Dimon’s laments all the more absurd is that they come from the head of a bank with an abominable track record. This is the bank that in 2013 had to pay $13 billion to settle federal and state allegations concerning the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It is also the bank that suffered a $2 billion trading loss generated by a group of London-based traders that top management failed to rein in and that Dimon himself all but excused in a blustering appearance before a Congressional committee.

And it is the bank that a year ago paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges of failing to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Criticisms of financial regulations coming from someone like Dimon should be accorded as much respect as denunciations of the racketeering laws coming from a mobster.

Another key source of overheated anti-regulation rhetoric is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has published a funny but telling account of how top officials of the powerful trade association reacted when he asked them how their dire warnings about the threats to free enterprise posed by the Obama Administration squared with the recent good news about the economy.

Chamber President Tom Donohue and chief lobbyist Bruce Josten called Milbank “crazy” for saying that the Chamber had ever issued such warnings, with Donohue offering to buy the journalist lunch if he could produce such statements. Of course, Milbank goes on to reproduce several overwrought quotes.

It’s quite possible that the likes of Donohue and Josten are so used to speaking in exaggerated terms that they forget the meaning of their words.

Unfortunately, their acolytes in Congress, who receive those words wrapped in campaign contributions, take the messages all too seriously.

Prosecuting Corporate Culprits

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

SteinzorOn December 18th, the national page of the New York Times contained two stories on atypical events in the business world. One was headlined “Pharmacy Executives Face Murder Charges in Meningitis Deaths” and the other “Chemical Company Owners are Charged in Spill That Tainted West Virginia Water.”

By all rights, articles like these should be as common as those reporting on the prosecution of warring gang members or drug kingpins. Actually, they should be more common, since street crime is declining while corporate malfeasance seems to be on the rise.

The reasons for the reluctant prosecution of corporate crime are carefully dissected in the new book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction by Rena Steinzor (photo), a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Steinzor, who is also president of the Center for Progressive Reform, starts by pointing a finger at what she calls “hollow government,” by which she means “outmoded and weak legal authority, funding shortfalls that prevent the effective implementation of regulatory requirements, and the relentless bashing of the civil service.”

What makes the decline of health, safety and environmental regulation so troubling is that for quite a while the system was, Steinzor notes, working fairly well. Both the food and drug laws of the early 20th Century and the environmental and workplace health legislation of the 1970s were helping to reduce deaths and illnesses.

Yet by the beginning of the new century, regulatory agencies were becoming timid while industry opponents and their Congressional allies grew ever more aggressive and successful. Steinzor takes the Obama Administration to task for often putting politics above regulatory rigor and for allowing the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to continue its traditional practice of weakening proposed rules.

Steinzor also excoriates the Justice Department for its widespread use of deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements, both before and during the Obama Administration. She sees these techniques as exactly the wrong approach in addressing corporate culpability in situations such as the Massey Energy mine collapse and two disasters — the Macondo well blowout and Texas City refinery explosion — linked to BP.

Rather than letting corporations buy their way out of these situations with financial settlements and promises not to sin again, Steinzor shows how it is possible to basic use legal concepts such as recklessness and willful blindness to bring criminal prosecutions against culpable managers and executives, especially when “industrial activities cause grave harm to public health, consumer or worker safety, or the environment.”

This needs to be done not only at the federal level, but also by local prosecutors, who have the powerful but largely neglected weapon of state manslaughter laws at their disposal.

Steinzor acknowledges that it will be difficult to change the attitudes of prosecutors, who all too often go for the easier approaches.

Another obstacle is the reluctance prosecutors seem to have about bringing cases they think might threaten the continued existence of a large corporation, a phobia stemming from the demise of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in 2002 in the wake of its criminal conviction for actions relating to the Enron fraud.

It is significant that the two prosecutions cited at the start of these piece involve executives at relatively small firms. Until we also see executives at Fortune 500 companies facing the risk of time behind bars, the current corporate crime wave will continue unabated.

Real Abuses, Sham Reforms

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

bosses_900It is now a full century since the Progressive Era ended some of the worst abuses of concentrated economic power. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.   It is 103 years since the dissolution of the Standard Oil trust, 108 years since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Yet even a casual reading of the business news these days suggests that we live in an economy disturbingly similar to the age of the robber barons.

Back then, the trusts shifted their incorporation to states such as New Jersey and Delaware that were willing to rewrite their business laws to accommodate the needs of oligopolies. Today large corporations are reincorporating themselves in foreign tax havens to dodge taxes. The practice is reaching epidemic proportions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Back then, unscrupulous drug companies and meatpackers sold adulterated products that could sicken or even kill their customers. Today General Motors is caught in a growing scandal about ignition switch defects that resulted in at least 13 deaths. The news about the automaker’s recklessness grows worse by the day, with the New York Times now reporting that company withheld information from federal regulators about the cause of fatal accidents.

Back then, wheeler-dealers such as James Fisk peddled dubious securities in companies that later collapsed, impoverishing investors. Today we’re still trying to get over the impact of the toxic mortgage-backed securities that the big banks packaged and sold during the housing bubble. Just the other day, Citigroup became the latest of those banks to settle charges brought by the Justice Department. Yet the $7 billion extracted from Citi, like the amounts obtained from the other banks, will cause little pain for the mammoth institution and will thus do little to deter future misconduct. The provision in the settlement for “consumer relief” is too little, too late.

And, of course, back then, the trusts got to be trusts by eliminating their competition. Today concentration is alive and well. Recently, the second largest U.S. tobacco company, Reynolds American, proposed a takeover of Lorillard, the number three in the industry. If this deal goes through, it won’t be long before Reynolds tries to marry Altria/Philip Morris, putting virtually the entire carcinogenic industry in the hands of one player, the way it was a century ago during the reign of the American Tobacco Company, aka the Tobacco Trust.

The movement toward a Media Trust just accelerated with the revelation that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, already huge, is seeking to take over Time Warner. The deal would put a mind-boggling array of entertainment properties under one roof. Murdoch offered to sell off Time Warner’s CNN – a meaningless concession given that the news network has struggled to survive against Murdoch’s despicable Fox News. Murdoch’s move comes as another media octopus, Comcast, is awaiting approval for its deal to take over Time Warner’s previously spun off cable business.

While we have all too many indications of a new Gilded Age, still scarce are signs of an effective response. We’ve got a good amount of muckraking journalism and a fair number of people (and even a few elected officials) who calls themselves progressives. Yet somehow this does not add up to a movement that can take a real bite out of corporate crime.

Part of the problem is that many of those in power professing progressive values are not serious about challenging corporate power. Some historians argue that the original Progressives were, like the New Dealers who came later, mainly concerned with saving capitalism from itself rather than changing the system. Yet they still managed to impose significant restrictions on big business through antitrust and other forms of regulation.

Today’s progressive officials often seem to want nothing more than to give the appearance of reform. That’s the story at the Justice Department, which has raised settlement levels and extracted some token guilty pleas but still allows corporations to buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, antitrust enforcement is tepid, and as the GM case increasingly shows, regulation is often a joke.

A resurgence of robber-baron behavior requires real, not sham reform.

Cantor’s Collapse and Crony Capitalism

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Dave Brat: hot stuff.It’s easy to see House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat as a sign that the country is moving far to the Right. Dave Brat’s successful underdog campaign was filled with the usual litany of immigrant bashing, Obamacare vilification and federal debt scare-mongering. Yet it appears that one of his most potent messages was an attack on Cantor for being too cozy with big business and thus fostering the culture of crony capitalism.

“If you’re in big business, Eric’s been very good to you, and he gets lots of donations because of that,” Brat (photo) was reported to have told supporters in a meeting earlier this year. “Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you’re favoring artificially big business, someone’s paying the tab for that. Someone’s paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You.”

We tend to think that promoting anger at big business is a theme of the Left, but conservative libertarians such as Brat have their own version of that critique. Yet whereas progressives tend to criticize giant corporations for a variety of sins — wage suppression, union-busting, environmental degradation, monopolization, extravagant executive compensation, etc. — people like Brat focus on one thing: the way that those corporations use their influence to extract special favors and financial assistance from Uncle Sam. Business should be able to do pretty much whatever it wants and pay as little as possible in taxes, they argue, but taking subsidies is beyond the pale.

The libertarian Right has a long history of criticizing what used to be more commonly called corporate welfare. For more than two decades, groups such as the Cato Institute have been publishing diatribes against grants, loan guarantees and other forms of business assistance. In a 1995 Cato paper entitled “Ending Corporate Welfare as We Know It,” Stephen Moore and Dean Stansel wrote:

Because they intermingle government dollars with corporate political clout, business subsidies have a corrupting influence on both America’s system of democratic government and our system of entrepreneurial capitalism. Despite the conventional orthodoxy in Washington that the United States needs an even closer alliance between business and politics, the truth is that both government and the marketplace would work better if they kept a healthy distance from each other.

Over the years, Cato and like-minded group kept up a drumbeat calling for the elimination of programs such as the Export-Import Bank, whose efforts largely benefited the overseas business of U.S. companies such as Boeing and Bechtel. For a period of time, Ralph Nader, who had long attacked some of the same programs from a different direction, made common cause with the libertarians and created a “strange bedfellows” alliance. The alliance got a lot of attention and statements of support, but in the end entrenched interests preserved most corporate welfare programs.

In the past few years, the tea party movement has helped revive the opposition to federal corporate subsidies, though the critique has often been imprecise. There has been a tendency to conflate the TARP program to bail out the banks with the Recovery Act stimulus designed to help the overall economy recover from the recession generated by the financial meltdown.

There’s also the issue of hypocrisy. The Koch Brothers, who have directly or indirectly funded many of the tea party groups, have benefited from a considerable amount of corporate welfare given to their Koch Industries conglomerate, including more than $89 million in state and local assistance my colleagues and I have documented in Subsidy Tracker.

Nonetheless, the notion of crony capitalism, which gained much of its currency during the Solyndra scandal, continues to be a favorite on the Right. In the Daily Signal web news service recently launched by the Heritage Foundation, Cronyism is one of the few highlighted topics, up there with Benghazi and Obamacare.

In his new book Unstoppable, Nader cites corporate welfare as one of the cornerstones of an emerging left-right alliance to “dismantle the corporate state.” Such an alliance may very well succeed in eliminating some of the most dubious forms of federal business assistance, but it cannot overcome the gulf between those who believe that giant corporations should otherwise be left alone and those of us who see the need to use the power of the state to rein in the power of those enterprises.

Congress’s Corporate Accountability Charades

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

bosses_900In recent days we’ve seen reprises of that old stand-by from the Congressional repertoire: hearings in which members of the House and Senate express indignation at corporate misconduct. Like similar performances that have come before, these events provided some short-term gratification but in all likelihood will ultimately prove frustrating.

The designated whipping boys this week were General Motors and Caterpillar. Both are legitimate targets. GM is embroiled in one of the worst safety scandals in its history as a result of mounting evidence that for years it concealed evidence of an ignition-switch defect that has been tied to a large number of deadly accidents. Caterpillar is under the gun because of a new Senate report accusing it of using accounting gimmicks to avoid more than $2 billion in federal taxes.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce committee, GM chief executive Mary Barra was confronted with statements such as “The public is very skeptical of GM,” “GM is not forthcoming” and “I think this goes beyond unacceptable. I believe this is criminal.”

The amazing thing is that these statements were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, who differed little in their critique of the automaker. The same can, for the most part, be said about Barra’s only slightly milder interrogation by the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. Several Republicans sought to score some political points by emphasizing GM’s previous status as a government-controlled corporation, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Barra whether the company’s safety lapses were related to the federal bailout (Barra sidestepped the question). Yet they did not press too hard in that direction.

The transcripts of the two GM hearings (available via Nexis) paint a very different picture of Congress from what we usually see these days. As Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont stated in the House hearing: “I have to congratulate General Motors for doing the impossible. You’ve got Republicans and Democrats working together.”

There was a similar seriousness of purpose and absence of simple-minded partisanship in the Senate hearing on Caterpillar. Subcommittee chair Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has done extensive work to highlight corporate tax dodging, was of course aggressive in grilling company executives about Caterpillar’s funneling of vast amounts of profit through a tiny Swiss subsidiary to take advantage of an artificially low tax rate.

Yet the company did not get much sympathy from the Republican members of the subcommittee either, though Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did manage to interject a reference to “our uncompetitive tax system.”

The unfortunate truth is that hearings such as these end up being nothing but a charade in which members of Congress pretend for a while to be tough on an egregious case of corporate malfeasance before they go back to doing the bidding of the monied interests.

For example, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was the one calling GM’s behavior “unacceptable” and “criminal,” sought to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who joined in the critical questioning of Barra, once introduced a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing “job-crushing regulations.”

The problem extends to Democrats as well. Veteran Rep. John Dingell, who was awarded special deference at the House hearing, has long-standing ties to General Motors and the other big U.S. automakers, which have been among his strongest political supporters. His wife Debbie Dingell worked for GM for 30 years. When the 87-year-old Dingell announced earlier this year that he plans to retire from Congress, a GM spokesperson said:  “As a champion of the auto industry, John Dingell had no peer.”

If anything, the inclination of members of Congress to do the bidding of business will only increase, now that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on total amounts wealthy individuals can give to candidates, party committees and PACs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Money in politics may at times seen repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

By once again equating money with speech, Roberts is ensuring that those with the most of it, including giant corporations, are the ones to which Congress, apart from brief periods of public interest grandstanding, will bow.

Coal Ash Taints a Would-Be Corporate Paradise

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

DanRiverAshPipeIt took a spill of tens of millions of gallons of water contaminated with toxic coal ash into a river used as a source of drinking water to put a halt to what was starting to look like a corporate coup in North Carolina. Duke Energy, the owner of the retired Dan River power plant in the town of Eden where the accident took place in early February, is now under siege, as is the governor who was doing its bidding.

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cited Duke Energy for “deficiencies” at the site of the spill and later charged the company with regulatory violations at other coal ash storage locations. DENR officials accused Duke, for instance, of deliberately pumping 61 million gallons of toxic slurry into the Cape Fear River several weeks after the Dan River accident. A federal criminal investigation that also covers DENR practices is also reported to be underway.

The actions were long overdue. Based in Charlotte, Duke is one of the largest utilities in the country, and it has long intimidated state regulators.  The Charlotte Observer looked into the matter and found that over the past decade the company has been fined only four times during the past decade, paying less than $4,000.

Duke gained even more sway over the agency last year after Pat McCrory took office as governor. McCrory was Duke’s guy — not just in the sense that the company supported him — but because McCrory was a manager at Duke for three decades, including the 14 years he was also serving as the mayor of Charlotte. McCrory is one of the most egregious examples of the reverse revolving door: the movement of someone from the private sector into government.

McCrory brought his corporate sensibilities with him to the governor’s job and set out to make state government even more friendly to companies such as his long-time employer. One of the areas in which this was most pronounced was in environmental policy. With the support of far-right legislators, McCrory appointed businessman John Skvarla to head DENR with the apparent intention of defanging the agency. Agency staffers were told to focus on expediting permits rather than enforcement. As the New York Times has put it:

Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.

McCrory’s apparent use of public office to advance the interests of Duke goes back more than 15 years. In 1997, while mayor of Charlotte, he testified before a Congressional committee in opposition to tougher air-quality standards that would have required Duke to install costly new emission controls at its coal-burning plants. Then he flew home on Duke’s corporate jet. The North Carolina Supreme Court once raised ethical questions about McCrory’s actions in connection with a decision by Charlotte to condemn a tract of land to help Duke Power obtain an easement.

Throughout his political career, McCrory has insisted that there was no conflict of interest between his position as a manager at a major corporation and his role as a public official. The recent coal ash controversies are stretching that dubious contention to the limit. The governor has been forced to take a more positive stance toward regulation while insisting that he has not had direct communications with his former employer about its coal ash problems. The new image took a hit when it came out that the lawyer hired by DENR to represent it in the federal criminal investigation once represented Duke. Echoing McCrory’s frequent refrain about himself, an agency spokesperson insisted that this was absolutely no conflict of interest.

The coal ash spills have created a serious health problem for the people of North Carolina, but they have also served the useful purpose of debunking the corporate paradise that McCrory and his allies have tried to create. Along with the remarkable Moral Monday protests against the retrograde policies adopted by the state legislature, the new awareness of environmental carelessness on the part of companies like Duke is making it more difficult for business interest to masquerade as the public interest.

Freedom to Pollute

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

freedomindustriesRecent news reports out of West Virginia sound like they were written as part of a parody of modern business: the company responsible for a chemical leak that contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people is named Freedom Industries and was cofounded by a two-time convicted felon.

The situation, however, is far from a joke. Freedom Industries spilled a substantial quantity of a substance called 4, methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River near the intake valve for a water treatment plant serving the Charleston area, sending more than 150 people to the hospital and forcing residents to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. The plume is now heading toward Cincinnati.

As is all too common in such incidents, it turns out that the 75-year-old facility where the rupture took place had not been visited by government inspectors for more than 20 years. In fact, as a storage rather than a production facility, it was subject to little in the way of federal or state oversight. So much for the idea of regulatory excess.

Given that MCHM is used to process coal, this accident adds to the heavy toll that mining has taken on West Virginia—from the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972 to the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010 in which 29 miners were killed. It is also significant that Freedom Industries purchases MCHM, for which it serves as a distributor, from a subsidiary of Georgia-Pacific, which in turn is controlled by the rabidly anti-regulation Koch Brothers.

To all this can be added the fact that Freedom Industries was cofounded by an individual named Carl Lemley Kennedy II. As the Charleston Gazette has reported, Kennedy filed for personal bankruptcy in 2005 after he was hit with federal charges of tax evasion and failure to remit employee withholding taxes. He is reported to have admitted to diverting more than $1 million that should have gone to the Internal Revenue Service.

Kennedy’s involvement in Freedom Industries, the Gazette notes, does not seem to have been affected by the fact that he had once pleaded guilty to selling cocaine in connection with a scandal that involved the mayor of Charleston. The paper quotes the current mayor, who is said to have known Kennedy since the 1980s, as an “edgy guy.”

Another remarkable aspect of the story reported by the Gazette is that Freedom Industries was struggling in 2009, and its Elk River facility was able to go on functioning only after the Army Corps of Engineers dredged that portion of the river using federal stimulus funds.

To summarize: a tax evader and drug dealer helped to establish a largely unregulated chemical company that benefitted from the federal stimulus but apparently did little in the way of preventive maintenance and set the stage for large-scale drinking water contamination.

Large corporations such as Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil have caused vast amounts of environmental damage, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that small-time operators such as Freedom Industries can also do substantial harm. And it is not just producers of hazardous materials but also distributors that can be the culprits. It was another small distributor, West Fertilizer, that was involved in the ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas last April that killed 15 people. Much of the reporting in the wake of that event, particularly with respect to holes in the regulatory system, could have been recycled for the new West Virginia accident.

As long as the illusion of regulation is perpetuated in place of the real thing, these accidents will continue to happen, and the right to pollute will trump the right to be safe from pollution.