The Infrastructure of Workplace Protection

Republicans are having limited success turning the public against the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan by claiming the proposal is too wide-ranging. A new NPR poll shows solid support not only for the provisions relating to roads and bridges but also for spending on modernizing the electric grid, achieving universal broadband coverage and even expanding long-term healthcare.  

Given the sweeping scope of the proposal, it is not possible for pollsters to ask about every component. I suspect there would also be high numbers for a portion of the plan that has received little attention. That is the provision that would strengthen the capacity of federal departments responsible for enforcing workplace protections.

Biden is proposing that $10 billion be spent to beef up agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Wage and Hour Division. The plan states: “President Biden is calling on Congress to provide the federal government with the tools it needs to ensure employers are providing workers with good jobs – including jobs with fair and equal pay, safe and healthy workplaces, and workplaces free from racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination and harassment.”

It makes sense to push for improvements in job quality at the same time the country is striving to bring the quantity of jobs back to the levels seen before the arrival of Covid-19. Workplace abuses predated the pandemic, in some ways got worse during the past year—especially with regard to job safety in industries such as meatpacking—and will be with us long after the health crisis abates.

Congress has perennially failed to fund these agencies adequately, leaving them with insufficient numbers of inspectors and investigators. For example, the most recent edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report notes that the number of workplace safety inspectors declined steadily during the Trump years both at the federal and state levels. These staffing shortages create a form of de factor deregulation as many workplace abuses go undetected and unprosecuted.

Biden’s plan also briefly addresses another problem with workplace enforcement: artificially low penalty structures, especially at OSHA. The Administration calls for increasing these penalties but does not provide specifics.

The penalty situation at OSHA is not as bad as it used to be. Changes made during the Obama Administration, including 2015 legislation that extended inflation adjustments to workplace safety fines, helped raise penalty rates. The maximum for a serious violation is now $13,653 and the maximum for a willful or repeated violation is $136,532.

These maximum amounts do not tell the full story. As Death on the Job points out, the average penalty for a serious violation in fiscal year 2019 was only $3,717. The average for willful violations was $59,373 and for repeat violations it was $14,109. Even in cases involving fatalities, the median penalty was just $9,282.

The cumulative effect of low OSHA penalties can be seen in the data in Violation Tracker, which only includes fines of $5,000 or more. OSHA accounts for 37 percent of the cases in the database but less than 1 percent of the total penalty dollars. Numbers such as these cause too many employers to conclude that their bottom line is best served by skimping on workplace safety and paying the meager fines that may or may not be imposed by OSHA.

The Biden infrastructure plan could begin to change that.

The Violation Tracker Origin Story

The article and dazzling infographics on Violation Tracker just published by Fortune are not only great publicity for the database. They also provide an opportunity to recall how the idea for a resource on corporate misconduct came about in the first place.

As the Fortune piece mentions, the origin story dates back to 1980, when I was a young researcher on the staff of that same magazine. Yet there is more to be said about what occurred behind the scenes during that project and its aftermath.

Back then, Irwin Ross, a contributor to the magazine, had seen a news article about small-business corruption in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to explore similar behavior among large companies. His assumption—and that of Fortune’s editors—was that illegality was rare in big business.

After being assigned to the project, I set out to disprove that premise by gathering as many cases as I could involving our sample universe of just over 1,000 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500 and related lists at any point during the previous ten years. The editors decided to limit the scope of the research to five categories: bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion, and criminal antitrust violations.

To the dismay of the editors, I found that quite a few of the corporations – 117 to be precise – had been the subject of a successful federal prosecution during the specified time period. Among these was Fortune’s then-parent, Time Inc., whose subsidiary Eastex Packaging had pleaded no contest to a price-fixing charge.  

After much hand-wringing, Fortune’s editors decided to publish the list of the cases, along with an article by Ross, in the December 1, 1980 issue with the headline “How Lawless Are Big Companies?” and the subhead “A look at the record since 1970 shows that a surprising number of them have been involved in blatant illegalities.” The story was featured on the cover with a photograph depicting an executive being fingerprinted by a U.S. Marshal.

As one might expect, the companies included in the list were quite displeased. To their credit, Fortune’s editors did not retract or disown the article, but they did agree to give one of the corporations an opportunity to respond.

The December 29, 1980 issue contained a piece by William Lurie, general counsel of International Paper, headlined “How Justice Loads the Scales Against Big Corporations.” Calling my list “simplistic and misleading,” he tried to explain why IP had felt compelled to plead nolo contendere to price fixing charges. His argument was essentially that it was simply too risky for a company to fight such charges in court, given that a guilty verdict would open the door to crushing damages in a follow-on civil suit.

This was not exactly a profession of innocence. In fact, as the Fortune article noted and Lurie acknowledged, no contest is tantamount to a guilty plea. Lurie’s argument, like nolo itself, served as a way for corporations to save face after being labeled corporate criminals. His piece also took the pressure off Fortune editors for diverging from what was then their unvarying defense of corporate behavior.

For me, the experience created a life-long fascination with documenting corporate misconduct. I later learned that this kind of research had begun much earlier, especially through the work of the sociologist Edwin Sutherland. When his book White Collar Crime was published in 1949, the company names were removed. It was only in 1983 that an unexpurgated version was published by Yale University Press.

Following in the tradition of Sutherland’s book and other work such as the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, Violation Tracker is designed to show that lawlessness among large corporations is a problem that persists.

Note: drop me a line at pmattera@goodjobsfirst.org if you can’t get behind the Fortune paywall and want to see the whole story.

The State of Environmental Enforcement

Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time, but we still have to contend with plenty of air pollution, water contamination and hazardous waste proliferation. That task will be easier now that the EPA is abandoning the lax practices of the Trump Administration and is once again getting serious about enforcement.

Yet the federal agency will not be taking on the challenge by itself. Enforcement of laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act is a function shared by the EPA and state environmental agencies. Not all states are equally enthusiastic about this responsibility.

Evidence of this can be found in the latest expansion of Violation Tracker consisting of more than 50,000 penalty cases my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project collected from state environmental regulators and attorneys general and just posted in the database. An analysis of the data is contained in a report titled The Other Environmental Regulators.

These cases include $21 billion in fines and settlements (limited to those of $5,000 or more) imposed against companies of all sizes, with the largest amounts coming in actions brought against BP in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

It should come as no surprise that the oil and gas industry accounts for much more in aggregate penalties — $8.2 billion – than any other sector of the economy. Utilities come in second with $6 billion. The worst repeat offender is Exxon Mobil, which was involved in 272 different cases with $576 million in total penalties. Those cases were spread across 24 different states.

That last number might have been even higher if all states were diligent about their enforcement duties. Instead, we found disparities that go beyond what might be expected from differences in size. There were unexpected results at both ends of the spectrum.

Given its reputation for being hostile to regulations, we were surprised that Texas turned out to have far more enforcement actions than any other state—over 9,500 since 2000. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission of Texas (which oversees pipelines and surface mining) may be cozy with industry when it comes to rulemaking and permitting, but they seem to be serious about enforcing regulations that are on the books.

At the bottom of the list are states such as Oklahoma and Kansas that appear to have brought only a tiny number of enforcement actions over the past 20 years. That is the conclusion we reached because the states post no significant enforcement case information on their websites and denied our open records requests for lists of cases. Little also turned up in news archive searches. It is difficult to believe that the many oil and gas operators in Oklahoma, for instance, hardly ever committed infractions.

Given that state environmental agencies are, to a great extent, enforcing federal laws, there should be much greater consistency in their oversight activities and their disclosure of those efforts.

Note: When using Violation Tracker you can locate state environmental cases by choosing one of the environmental listings in the Option 1 state agency dropdown, or you can do an Option 2 search that includes State as the Level of Government and Environmental Violation as the Offense Type.

Inconsistencies in State Environmental Disclosure

We all know that state governments vary greatly in their policies on a variety of issues. I just discovered the degree to which they also diverge in their willingness to disclose data on their implementation of those policies.

I learned this lesson in the course of gathering data from state environmental regulators across the country for a major expansion of the Violation Tracker database. Next week, my colleagues and I will post 50,000 new entries from those agencies along with a report analyzing the data.

This is the culmination of months of effort to collect data on state environmental enforcement actions over the past two decades. A few state agencies made the process easy by putting the case data on their websites in a form that could be downloaded or scraped.

Others post large archives of individual case documents, sometimes numbering in the thousands. Many agencies put no enforcement information at all on their sites.

This meant we needed to file open records requests—lots of them—for lists of cases with information such as company name, penalty amount, date, category and facility location. Given that some states have more than one environmental agency and some required that separate requests be sent to different divisions (air, water, hazardous waste, etc.), we ended up filing about 90 requests.

The good news is that nearly all states ultimately came through with some information. This was not always in our requested format (a spreadsheet) or time period (back to 2000), but we made the best of what was sent.

There were half a dozen denials, which fell into two main categories. Agencies such as CalRecycle and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation declined to provide lists of case details contained in documents posted on the site. In other words, they felt no obligation to make our data collection more convenient. We thus had to sift through hundreds of documents and create our own lists.

More troubling was the situation with agencies such as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which turned down our requests even though they provide no significant enforcement information on their websites. For these agencies, we checked non-official sources such as the Lexis-Nexis news archive and found references to a small number of cases.

Nearly all of the agencies that denied our open records requests based their rejection on the claim that providing the lists we were seeking would, in effect, require the creation of a new record, whereas their state transparency laws only obligated them to supply existing records.

This position is antithetical to the spirit of open records laws. It is especially troubling when it comes to information on environment enforcement, an area in which states are carrying out a function delegated to them by the federal government under laws such as the Clean Air Act.

Just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posts data (through ECHO) on the enforcement actions it carries out on its own, so should the state agencies partnering with EPA be fully transparent about their activities. That would mean not just responding favorably to open records requests for comprehensive data but also posting their enforcement data on the web, ideally in a standardized format.

Accessibility is an essential part of meaningful transparency. It should not be necessary to file 90 open records requests to discover how a key government function is being carried out.

Happy Sunshine Week.

EPA’s New Leadership Will Also Encourage More State Enforcement

The confirmation and swearing in of Michael Regan as administrator of the EPA creates an opportunity for the agency to repair the damage done during the Trump years. Part of that effort will be to change the dynamic between the EPA and state environmental regulators.

It is often forgotten that responsibility for enforcement of laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act is actually shared between the federal and state governments. I was reminded on this in the course of preparing the latest expansion of Violation Tracker, which will consist of more than 50,000 state-government environmental enforcement actions dating back to the beginning of 2000. The new data will be posted later in March along with a report examining the relative level of activity among the states.

Regan ran the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, one of the agencies from which we collected data. The DEQ has brought around 1,500 successful enforcement actions over the past decade, putting it among the top ten states according to our tally, which is limited to cases in which a penalty of $5,000 or more was imposed.

The DEP and the North Carolina Attorney General have collected more than $950 million in fines and settlements, putting it among the top five states in terms of aggregate penalty dollars. North Carolina’s penalty total was boosted enormously by an $855 million settlement reached with Duke Energy earlier this year involving coal ash cleanup.

Regan is not the first state official to head the EPA. But consider the contrast with the person Donald Trump chose to be his first EPA administrator: Scott Pruitt, who had served as the attorney general of Oklahoma and who made a name for himself in that position by repeatedly suing the EPA to bring about regulatory rollbacks. Oklahoma, by the way, came in at the bottom of our tally of state enforcement caseloads.

Under Pruitt and his successor, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, the EPA backed away from aggressive enforcement in favor of voluntary compliance, which for many corporations is an invitation to ignore regulations. This not only affected enforcement work at the federal level but also encouraged a hands-off approach by the states that emboldened environmental scofflaws.

Fortunately, places such as North Carolina went their own way. Now that Regan is running the show at EPA, states will feel encouraged to pursue meaningful enforcement of the laws governing air, water and hazardous waste pollution. Maybe even Oklahoma will be inspired to change its ways.

Exxon’s Environmental Baby Steps

Exxon Mobil would have to be included in any list of the large corporations that have done the most environmental damage over the decades.

Part of the reason would be specific events, such as the 1989 accident in which the company’s supertanker Valdez went aground off the coast of Alaska and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound, polluting more than 700 miles of shoreline. Although much of the guilt was laid to the captain of the vessel, who was intoxicated and away from his post at the time of the accident, Exxon was faulted for not acting quickly enough in dealing with the spill and for not adequately cooperating with state and federal officials.

Then there is the fact that Exxon was for many years one of the key corporate ringleaders in the climate denial effort. In 2015 Inside Climate News published an exhaustive expose on the company’s decades-long campaign, including the suppression of its own research showing the dangers of greenhouse gases and the associated financial risk.

Now, at long last, Exxon is changing its posture—a bit. The company has added a couple of directors with no previous ties to the fossil fuel industry, and its CEO is talking about the importance of carbon capture. In an interview with the New York Times, Darren Woods (photo) promised, as the newspaper put it, “that Exxon would try to set a goal for not emitting more greenhouse gases than it removed from the atmosphere, though he said it was still difficult to say when that might happen.”

It is frustrating to see Exxon take such tentative steps when the climate crisis is so dire and other companies such as General Motors with strong historic ties to fossil fuels are announcing much more ambitious initiatives.

Along with getting serious about climate change, Exxon needs to be a lot more diligent about basic environmental compliance. This has come home to me as I have been processing the data for a major expansion of Violation Tracker involving the addition of tens of thousands of cases from state government environmental agencies.

Exxon will end up high on the list of companies that have paid the most to states for violations of clean air, clean water, hazardous waste and other regulations. My preliminary calculation puts its total fines and settlements with state agencies at more than $540 million since 2000. That amount comes from more than 240 different cases in 22 states.

That total does not include a class action lawsuit brought in connection with the Exxon Valdez disaster. In 1994 a jury ordered the company to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of Alaskans but the company fought the award all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which slashed the damages to about $500 million.

I suppose it is progress that Exxon has abandoned its total refusal to acknowledge the issue of climate change, but it needs to do a lot more before it can be removed from the environmental rogues gallery.

Poverty Wages and Large Corporations

There was a time when landing a job with a large corporation was, even for blue collar workers, a ticket to a comfortable life—good wages, generous benefits and a secure retirement. Women and workers of color did not share fully in this bounty, but they generally did better at big firms than small ones.

All this began to unravel in the 1980s, when big business used the excuse of global competition to chip away at the living standards of the domestic workforce. This took the form of an assault on unions, which had played a key role in bringing about the improvements in the terms of employment. In meatpacking, for instance, what had been a high-wage, high-union-density industry turned into a bastion of precarious labor.

When large corporations off-loaded a substantial portion of their employment costs, they created a higher burden for the public sector. As their pay and benefits shrank, workers turned to the social safety net to fill the gap. Programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) that were originally designed for employees of small firms and for the unemployed became a lifeline for the workforce at some Fortune 500 companies.

From a social point of view, this was a good thing—but it also created a situation in which taxpayers were in effect subsidizing the labor costs of mega-corporations. This became an issue in the early 2000s with regard to Walmart, and there were unsuccessful efforts in states such as Maryland to require large firms to spend more on employee healthcare.

Although the issue receded from public attention, figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have sought to keep it alive, putting the main focus on the employment practices of Amazon.com. In 2018 Sanders helped pressure the giant e-commerce firm to raise its wage rates by introducing legislation that would have taxed large companies to recoup the cost of government benefits given to their employees.

Now the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Sanders is continuing his effort from a position of even greater influence. He just held a hearing on whether taxpayers are subsidizing poverty wages at large corporations. As in 2018, just highlighting the issue had a concrete impact. At the hearing the chief executive of Costco announced that his company would raise its minimum pay rate to $16 an hour. This came a week after Walmart hiked its rate to $15 but only for a portion of its workforce.

After years of wage stagnation, it is heartening to see that large companies are beginning to feel some pressure to boost their wage rates. Yet rises of only a few dollars an hour will not do the trick. Pay needs to be substantially higher than $15 an hour. That’s why the real solution to the problem is not voluntary corporate action but rather collective bargaining. Amazon and Walmart could assist their workers much more by dropping their opposition to unionization.

Having a voice at work would solve not only the pay problem but also the crisis in healthcare coverage and other benefits.  The scope of that crisis was made plain by another speaker at the Senate Budget Committee hearing. Cindy Brown Barnes of the Government Accountability Office summarized research showing that an estimated 12 million adults enrolled in Medicaid and 9 million adults living in households receiving food stamp benefits earned wages at some point in 2018.

The GAO had more difficulty determining the portion of these populations employed at large corporations. That is because only a limited number of the state agencies administering Medicaid and food stamps collect and update employer information on recipients.

The partial data is still revealing. Among the six states providing employer information for Medicaid recipients, Walmart was in the top ten in all, while McDonald’s and Amazon were in five. Among the nine states providing employer information for food stamp recipients, Walmart was in the top ten in all, while McDonald’s was in eight and Amazon was in four.

These findings provide valuable information for the Sanders campaign against poverty wages. Companies such as Amazon—which recently reported that its annual revenues in 2020 were up 38 percent and its profits nearly doubled to $21 billion—can well afford to pay employees a living wage and provide the benefits necessary for a decent standard of living.

Public safety net programs are essential to society, but those who are employed by mega-corporations should not have to make use of them.

A Reckoning for Texas

Electric utilities come in in numerous forms. Some are cooperatives or municipals devoted to serving the interests of their members. Others are investor-owned entities that are unabashedly focused on the pursuit of profit. Texas has some of both, but the Lonestar State stands out for its decision to operate a statewide power grid cut off from all other states. This move is now causing massive hardship amid the polar vortex.

Hare-brained energy market approaches have been around for some time in Texas. Houston was the headquarters of Enron, which made use of federal deregulation to promote aggressive energy trading schemes that turned out to thoroughly fraudulent. It was only a few months after Enron declared bankruptcy that the Texas legislature adopted a statewide electricity market deregulation scheme.

Since then, the old-line utilities have been broken up, bought and sold like so many Monopoly properties. For instance, Dallas Power & Light morphed into TXU Electric Delivery, which in turn became Oncor Electric Delivery. Oncor was then taken over by California-based Sempra Energy.

Houston Lighting and Power was split up into several companies, including CenterPoint Energy. When the storm hit, CenterPoint was focused on a complicated financial deal involving its subsidiary Enable Midstream Partners.

Amid this wheeling and dealing, Texas utilities seemed to have forgotten about their most important responsibility: serving their customers. They created the now ridiculously named Electric Reliability Council of Texas to coordinate their efforts, but neither that non-profit nor the individual companies thought to prepare for the kind of extreme weather situation that is now crippling the state.

There have been signs that Texas climate was becoming erratic. In 2018 hailstones the size of tennis balls caused $1 billion in damages in North Texas. Houston had its earliest snow ever. Bloomberg is reporting that ERCOT was warned a decade ago that Texas utility facilities needed to be winterized to assure service during colder weather.

ERCOT deserves no sympathy, but it is absurd for politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott to put all the blame on the non-profit when he has long been a climate change denier, a deregulation proponent and a renewable energy basher.

The current disaster should serve as a wake-up call to Texas politicians as well as Texas utilities that they should focus less on ideological posturing and financial maneuvers and pay more attention to the needs of the residents of the state.  

The Opposite of Sustainability

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is one of the many global corporations, especially those based in Europe, that profess to be devoted to sustainability in their operations. Shell claims that its commitment in this area dates back to 1997.

For most large corporations, these assertions of environmental virtue are dubious at best. In the case of Shell, they are especially far-fetched, given the company’s history in countries such as Nigeria.

In the early 1990s Shell began to face protests over its oil operations in Nigeria. In 1994 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, then led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, began blockading contractors working on Shell’s facilities to bring attention to the large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that were occurring in the Ogoniland region. The group described Shell’s operations as “environmental terrorism.”

The Nigerian government, a partner with Shell in the operations, responded to the protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest of Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship. Protests against the company continued.

A lawsuit brought on behalf of the Saro-Wiwa family was later filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. In 2009, just before a trial was set to begin, the company announced that as a “humanitarian gesture” it would pay $15.5 million to the plaintiffs to settle the case. By contrast, a 2011 United Nations estimated that an environmental cleanup of the Niger Delta would cost $1 billion and take 30 years.

A separate Alien Torts Claims case brought on behalf of the Ogoni people against Royal Dutch Shell in 2002 made its way through the U.S. legal system to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 ruled that the U.S. courts could not be used to bring claims against overseas acts by foreign companies.

Another case–this one brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and four Nigerian farmers–was filed in a Dutch court, alleging that spills from Shell pipelines damaged the livelihood of the farmers. The case, which represented the first time a Dutch multinational has been sued in the Netherlands for overseas activities, was mostly dismissed in 2013 but the plaintiffs persisted.

Recently the Hague Court of Appeal finally issued a decision on the case, ruling that Shell has to pay compensation to the farmers and install equipment to prevent future pipeline leaks. The amount of the compensation has yet to be determined.

It is unlikely that Shell, which generates more than $300 billion in annual revenue and ranked number 5 in the most recent Fortune Global 500 list, will have difficulty paying whatever the Dutch court mandates. Perhaps the bigger problem is that Shell has never acknowledged responsibility for the ecological damage and still insists that the leaks were caused by sabotage.

Until it fully owns up to its culpability for human rights and environmental damage in Nigeria, Shell has no business presenting itself as practitioner of sustainability.

Toxic Corporations

Given the Biden Administration’s focus on the climate crisis, the announcement by General Motors that it will transition to an all-electric fleet, and the growing emphasis on sustainability among institutional investors, one might be tempted to think the United States is embarking on an environmental rebirth.

Despite some good signs, it is worth remembering that many large corporations—including ones that tout green credentials—are still spewing vast amounts of dangerous emissions into the air, land and water. Perhaps the best reminders of this reality are the data compilations produced by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

PERI recently released the latest version of its Toxic 100 lists, which cover air, water and greenhouse gas emissions. The lists are based on data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The EPA publishes the data only for individual U.S. facilities, whereas PERI combines the emission amounts by parent company and thus reveals which large corporations account for the largest pollution shares. PERI’s approach is much like the one we use in Violation Tracker. It helps a lot that database wizard Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection works on both projects.

There are a total of about 220 parent companies that appear on one or more of the three PERI lists. The Netherlands-based chemical company LyondellBasel Industries, which owns heavily polluting plants in Texas and other states, is at the top of the air list. Military contractor Northrop Grumman tops the water list, mainly because of the massive emissions at its subsidiary Alliant Techsystem’s facility in Virginia. The parent with the most greenhouse gas emissions is, ironically, Vistra Energy, which is heavily involved in renewable power generation and storage.

I was interested to see which corporations appeared on all three lists. I found that 16 firms have that dubious distinction. Not surprisingly, they include the country’s largest petroleum, chemical and steel producers.

Five of the group appear in the top 50 on each of the three lists: Dow Inc., Koch Industries, Berkshire Hathaway, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum. Dow is the only one of these to be in the top ten of two different lists. It ranks fourth in water emissions and fifth in air emissions (as well as 44th in greenhouse gases). Koch Industries is in the top 25 of all three lists.

Dow’s position as the worst overall polluter comes as no surprise, given that the company has a toxic history that dates back decades and includes its notorious role in the production of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Its reputation only worsened after its 2001 acquisition of Union Carbide, which refused to pay adequate compensation for the thousands of victims of the 1984 disaster at its pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Dow was also embroiled in a major scandal involving faulty silicone breast implants.

The blots on Dow’s record are not all in the distant past. In 2019, for instance, it reached a $98 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the State of Michigan and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to restore areas damages by hazardous releases from Dow’s operations in Midland, Michigan.

You wouldn’t learn any of this background by reading the history section of the company’s website, which includes a page headlined “Sustainability from the Start: Dow’s Rich History of Environmental Stewardship.” As for the present, the site declares: “At Dow, we’re working to deliver a sustainable future for the world by connecting and collaborating to find new options for materials that make life better for everyone.”

This sort of greenwashing language is all too typical in the materials large corporations publish about themselves. PERI’s Toxic 100 shows that these companies have a long way to go before they can accurately depict themselves as paragons of environmental virtue.