Archive for April, 2013

Amazon Gets Its Way

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

amazonWhen companies get subsidies from state and local governments, it usually means that they have to pay less in taxes. Internet retailing behemoth Amazon.com built its business on making sure it could avoid collecting sales taxes from many of its customers, thus allowing it to undercut its brick and mortar rivals.

It now looks like that indirect subsidy is finally coming to an end. Congress seems poised to pass legislation that would require all online merchants with $1 million or more in revenue (Amazon’s annual sales are 60,000 times larger at $61 billion) to collect state and municipal sales taxes from customers anywhere in the country. This will be a godsend to struggling governments that need the revenue to pay for education, healthcare and other vital services.

Amazon has already come to terms with this policy change and in fact has been taking steps to exploit it. As has been widely reported, Amazon recognizes that the next stage in internet retailing is same-day delivery, at least in selected areas. To make that service possible, Amazon needs to greatly expand its network of huge distribution centers from which all those Kindles and toys and kitchen gadgets can be quickly transported to impatient customers. The company just reported a 37 percent drop in its first quarter profits that has been attributed in part to the cost of expanding that distribution network.

Don’t shed any tears for Amazon. That drop is probably just a blip. The company has already taken steps to radically reduce the cost of building those new facilities.

It has done this by using its sales tax collection practices as leverage in negotiating with state governments. For several years, the company negotiated special exemptions from the requirement to collect taxes in those states where it had a physical presence such as a warehouse. In some states, such as South Carolina in 2011, it used the promise of job creation linked to new distribution centers as bait to get the exemptions.

When necessary, the company also tried to use those promises to evade obligations to make good on judgments concerning uncollected past taxes. For example, last year the company reached a deal with Texas that allowed it to skate on a $269 million assessment for uncollected taxes. In exchange, the company agreed to invest $200 million on facilities it would have had to build anyway.

The company is also shifting its demands to traditional economic development subsidies such as income tax credits, property tax abatements and cash grants. For example, the company got a $7.5 million state grant and a $1 million local abatement for a distribution center it agreed to build in Delaware, and it agreed to build two such facilities in New Jersey on the condition that it receive a subsidy package, the value of which has not yet been announced

Amazon has also received a $2 million tax credit and up to $300,000 in training grants from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation for a fulfillment center it agreed to build in Jeffersonville. That agency — whose website lures companies with the pitch “Looking for a right-to-work state with all the right resources, business incentives, low corporate tax rates and AAA credit rating in place to reach your full potential?  – is in tune with Amazon’s sensibilities. For in addition to seeking financial assistance, Amazon takes advantage of the implicit subsidy created by weak labor laws.

The fact that its U.S. operations have remained entirely non-union has made it easier for the company to impose inhuman working conditions in its facilities, which have been the target of criticism by groups such as Working Washington. The controversy has also emerged at Amazon’s operations in Germany, where the company was accused of using neo-Nazi thugs to intimidate immigrant workers at the facilities.

Amazon, it appears, will stop at nothing in its quest to dominate online commerce.

The Other Form of Violence

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

west-texas-fertilizer-plant-explosion-2Newscasts these days often seem to be less a form of journalism than a kind of bizarre game show for paranoids: what horrible possibility should one worry about the most?

Most of the time, the main choice is between terrorism and gun violence, especially in recent days as the Boston Marathon bombings have shared the airwaves with the gun control debate in the Senate.

Now the horrific events in a small town in Texas provide a reminder of another danger, which for most of the population is actually a more significant threat: industrial accidents. As of this writing, the explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco is reported to have killed up to 15 people and injured more than 180 others.

If the past is any guide, the attention paid to this incident on a national level will fade much faster than the anxiety about the carnage in Boston or the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. The response of most people to terrorism and to gun deaths is to demand that government do something to curb the violence. When people die or are seriously injured in workplace incidents, there is a tendency not to see that as violence at all but rather as an unfortunate side effect of doing certain kinds of business. While labor unions and other advocates push for stronger enforcement of safety laws, corporations and their front groups usually succeed in keeping such regulation as weak as possible.

The truth is that corporations often show a brazen disregard for the safety of their employees—and nearby residents. Probably the biggest workplace assailant in recent years has been BP, which even before the 2010 explosion at its oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers had been cited for atrocious safety violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed and about 180 injured in a 2005 explosion.

BP initially agreed to pay a then-record $21.4 million in fines for nearly 300 “egregious” violations at the refinery, but in 2009 OSHA announced that the company was not living up to its obligations under the settlement and proposed an even larger fine–$87.4 million–against the company for allowing unsafe conditions to persist. BP challenged the fine and later agreed to pay $50.6 million. Apparently deciding it could not run the refinery safely, BP announced in 2012 that it was selling the facility.

In the list of the all-time largest fines in OSHA’s history, BP is at the top of the list. It’s interesting that the next largest fine involved another fertilizer company—IMC Fertilizer, which along with Angus Chemical was initially fined $11.6 million (negotiated down to about $10 million) for violations linked to a 1991 explosion at a plant in Louisiana in which eight workers were killed and 120 injured.

The new incident at the fertilizer plant in Texas shows that risky business behavior is not limited to corporate giants. While many press accounts refer to the plant as West Fertilizer Co., the corporate entity is actually Adair Grain Inc., which according to Dun & Bradstreet has only eight employees and annual revenues of only a few million dollars.

Although the facility’s listing in the EPA’s ECHO enforcement database shows no violations and no inspections during the past five years (the period covered by ECHO), there have been press reports of an earlier citation for failing to have a risk management plan. The facility did not get an air pollution permit until 2007, after there were complaints about foul odors from the site. Last year, the company was fined all of $10,100 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for violations in the transportation of anhydrous ammonia. There is no indication in the OSHA database that the facility has ever been inspected.

It’s the same old story: a dangerous industrial facility with limited regulatory oversight finally creates death and destruction.

Footnote: Until the accident, the only time Adair Grain rose out of obscurity was in 2007, when under the name of its affiliate Texas Grain Storage it filed a federal lawsuit against Monsanto, charging it with anticompetitive practices in its sale of Roundup herbicides (U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas civil case SA-07-CA-673-OG). The case, which was brought with the involvement of ten mostly out-of-state law firms and sought class action status, appears to be dormant.

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The latest addition to CORPORATE RAP SHEETS is dossier on agribusiness giant Cargill, whose record includes some of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history and repeated workplace safety violations, including several at fertilizer plants it used to own. Read the Rap Sheet here.

The Keystone Kop of Tar Sands Oil

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

KeystoneKopsEven if the Obama Administration decides against the Keystone XL pipeline, the rejection of that project would not put much of a dent in the output of environmentally destructive Alberta tar sands oil.  One reason is that tar sands producers are hedging their bets. They are also hoping to ship their product westward through another pipeline that will extend to the Pacific port of Kitimat in British Columbia.

What is particularly dismaying is that the company behind this Northern Gateway project is Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge, which has what is probably the worst safety record of any oil transportation company in the world. Among other things, it was responsible for the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history—the July 2010 accident that spewed more than 800,000 gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, a major state waterway that flows into Lake Michigan.

The incident occurred only months after the company was warned that it was not properly monitoring corrosion on the pipeline.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) later imposed a record civil penalty of $3.7 million against Enbridge, which it said exhibited a “lack of a safety culture.”  This was echoed in the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which determined that it was not until 17 hours after the spill started that Enbridge began to take steps to address the problem. The safety board chair was quoted in an agency press release as saying: “This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment.”

Enbridge’s lack of attention to safety can be seen in its record both before and after the Michigan spill.

For example, in 2001 a seam failure on a pipeline near Enbridge’s Hardisty Terminal in Alberta spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil. The following year, a 34-inch-diameter pipeline owned by its affiliate Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured in northern Minnesota, contaminating five acres of wetland with about 250,000 gallons of crude oil.

In 2003 about 189,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Nemadji River from the Enbridge Energy Terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Fortunately, the river was frozen at the time, so damage to the waterway was limited.

In 2004 the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed a fine of $11,500 against Enbridge for safety violations found during inspections of pipelines in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The penalty was later reduced to $5,000. In a parallel case involving Enbridge operations in Minnesota, an initial penalty of $30,000 was revised to $25,000.

In 2007 an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin spilled more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil onto a farmer’s field in Clark County. The following month another Enbridge spill in Wisconsin released 176,000 gallons of crude in Rusk County. That same year, two workers were killed in an explosion that occurred at an Enbridge pipeline in Clearbrook, Minnesota. The PHMSA later fined the company $2.4 million for safety violations connected to the incident.

In 2008 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources charged Enbridge with more than 100 environmental violations relating to the construction of a 320-mile pipeline across much of the state. The agency said that Enbridge workers illegally cleared and disrupted wooded wetlands and were responsible for other actions that resulted in discharging sediment into waterways. In January 2009 the company settled the charges by agreeing to pay $1.1 million in penalties.

In 2009 the PHMSA fined Enbridge $105,000 for a 2007 accident that released more than 9,000 gallons of crude oil. The following year, PHMSA proposed a fine of $28,800 against Enbridge for safety violations in Oklahoma.

Shortly after the Michigan accident, Enbridge experienced another spill at one of its pipelines in Romeoville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

And in In July 2012, less than a month after the publication of the damning National Transportation Safety Board report on the Michigan accident, an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin ruptured and spilled some 50,000 gallons of oil. One member of the U.S. Congress responded by saying: “Enbridge is fast becoming to the Midwest what BP was to the Gulf of Mexico.”

These incidents are only the ones big enough to gain press attention and significant regulatory response. A profile of the company by the Polaris Institute put the number even higher—more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010 in which some 6.8 million gallons of oil were spilled in the U.S. and Canada.

While Keystone XL and its sponsor TransCanada get the attention, Enbridge may be an even bigger threat.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Enbridge, which can be found here.

Canada’s Other Tar Sands Villain

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

suncor_oil_sandsAs the Obama Administration nears its final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the oil industry should be on its best behavior. Yet the purveyors of petroleum can’t seem to help themselves. They keep having accidents that demonstrate the perils of Keystone.

Those perils are not limited to the disastrous contribution the pipeline would make to the climate crisis. Recent events show what a dangerous business it is to transport oil across vast distances, especially when that oil is of the exceedingly dirty variety produced in the tar sands of Canada.

Exxon Mobil has been the center of attention in recent days as the result of a leak of some 10,000 barrels of heavy Canadian crude in a residential area near Little Rock, Arkansas. The incident came only days after the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed that the company be fined $1.7 million in connection with a 2011 pipeline rupture that spewed a large quantity of oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana.

The Arkansas spill came shortly after a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed, spilling some 30,000 barrels of tar sands oil in western Minnesota.

The U.S. press has paid less attention to yet another spill. This one took place right where tar sands oil is produced in Alberta, and the responsible party was Canadian oil giant Suncor Energy. And it turned out that the site of its toxic wastewater spill into the Athabasca River was the same place where a previously unreported spill occurred two years earlier.

Suncor, which is the subject of my latest Corporate Rap Sheet, tends to get less attention from U.S. tar sands activists than Transcanada, which is the company behind Keystone XL. Yet Suncor is one of a handful of operators that produce the tar sands oil that would flow through the pipeline.

It was Suncor, in its previous incarnation as a subsidiary of Sunoco, that pioneered tar sands production in the 1950s and went on to invest billions of dollars to develop the dirty business. Suncor has thus been a target of anti-tar sands protests by groups such as Greenpeace Canada.

The recent spill in Alberta and the belatedly reported 2011 incident are far from the only blemishes on the company’s safety and environmental record.

In 2008 there was a scandal over reports that a leak of nearly 1 million liters of waste water from a Suncor containment pond into the Athabasca River went unreported for up to eight months. Alberta Environment later charged the company with being out of compliance with its Water Act license but fined it only C$275,000.

In 2009 there was a bigger scandal over reports that a Suncor contractor, Compass Group Canada, had failed to properly treat human waste from a company work camp before dumping sewage into the same river. Suncor was fined C$175,000 for failing to properly supervise Compass, which was fined C$225,000 for failing to report the problem.

At the same time, Suncor was fined C$675,000 for failing to install pollution control equipment at its Firebag oil sands facility. In July 2009 Suncor was fined C$625,000 for excessive discharges of sulfur dioxide at its Sarnia oil refinery in Ontario.

In 2010 Environment Canada ordered Suncor to pay C$200,000 after it pleaded guilty to two violations of the Canadian Fisheries Act in connection with a 2008 incident in which wastewater overflowed from a containment pond into the Steepbank River in Alberta.

In December 2011 an accident at Suncor’s refinery in Commerce City, Colorado resulted in the seepage of hazardous waste into Sand Creek and the South Platte River. Tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the contamination included the carcinogenic substance benzene. The drinking water at the refinery was also found to contain high levels of benzene. Meanwhile, the refinery continued to spread contamination into surrounding groundwater sources. Six months after the spill, Colorado officials were saying that a complete clean-up could take years.

In April 2012 the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced that Suncor would pay $2.2 million in negotiated fines in connection with airborne benzene releases at the Commerce City refinery unrelated to the accident.

In October 2012, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board announced that Suncor had admitted to regulatory violations in connection with a spill of lubricating fluid at its drilling platform in the Jeanne d’Arc basin the year before; the company was ordered to pay C$130,000 in penalties.

Transcanada deserves all the criticism it gets for its Keystone plan, but companies like Suncor that actually produce the dirty oil that will travel through that system also need to feel the heat.

Read the full Corporate Rap Sheet on Suncor Energy here.