Aiding Corporate Outlaws

January 7th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

In a move akin to asking burglars for suggestions on how to make security systems less effective, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives, is consulting corporations and trade associations on regulatory policy.

Seeking to revive the anti-regulatory fervor of the Reagan era, Issa is throwing around fabricated numbers ($1.7 trillion) about the cost of business compliance with government rules and bogus claims about the negative impact of regulation on job creation. And in an unambiguous signal that corporate interests are now to be considered paramount, he has been sending letters to scores of companies and associations asking for their deregulatory wish lists.

Issa’s office declined to disclose a complete list of those sent the love letters, but Politico reports that the recipients include trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, and individual companies such as Toyota, Duke Energy, Bayer and FMC Corp.

Of all these names, FMC is probably the least well known, but it is a good example of the kind of corporation that will probably benefit the most if Issa and his colleagues have any success – i.e. a company with an abysmal track record.

FMC is a $3 billion chemical company that produces pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and specialty chemicals for food processing and other industries. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company dates back to the invention of an insecticide pump by John Bean in the 1880s. From the 1920s onward it functioned as a conglomerate, acquiring a wide range of food processing and chemical firms (it was also a military contractor for a period of time).

It was through these acquisitions that FMC assumed responsibility for some of the most hazardous production facilities and waste sites in the country. For example:

In 1977 FMC’s South Charleston, West Virginia plant was shut down under court order for discharging carbon tetrachloride (used in cleaning agents) into drinking-water supplies of communities along with Kanawha and Ohio rivers. After FMC and two of its executives were indicted in federal court on charges of conspiring to conceal excessive discharges at the plant, the company agreed to pay a fine of $35,000 and to place $1 million in escrow to finance future water pollution studies. In 1983 an explosion at the plant killed one worker and injured three others. OSHA later determined that safety violations by the company contributed to the conditions that caused the accident.

In 1983 FMC agreed to spend $6 million to clean up a hazardous waste site in Minnesota that threatened the drinking water supply of Minneapolis. The cleanup at the munitions plant in the town of Fridley, where chemical wastes were buried for more than two decades, involved the treatment of up to 58,000 cubic yards of soil for contaminants such as trichloroethylene.

In 1995 about 6,250 pounds of phosphorus trichloride spilled from an overfilled tank onto the ground, reacted with rainwater and sent a toxic cloud of hydrochloric acid from the FMC plant in Nitro, West Virginia.

In 1998 the EPA fined FMC $209,600 for underreporting Toxic Release Inventory data related to a phosphorous processing plant on the Shoshone-Bannock Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello, Idaho. Later that year, FMC and the EPA reached agreement on a consent decree to resolve other violations at the plant by requiring the company to spend approximately $158 million on remedial measures. FMC also agreed to a penalty of $11.8 million, a record at the time for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In 1999 FMC reached agreement with the EPA and the Justice Department regarding the cleanup of the Avtex Fibers Superfund site in Front Royal, Virginia, which FMC owned and operated from 1963 to 1976. Avtex bought the facility in 1976 but shut it down in 1989 under the weight of some 2,000 environmental violations related to many years of contamination with asbestos, lead and other toxic substances. FMC agreed to spend about $100 million for the clean-up of the site, considered the biggest environmental problem area in the state.

By 2000, FMC had been named as a potentially responsible party in connection with about 30 locations on the federal government’s National Priority List of hazardous waste sites.

Add to all of this FMC’s involvement over the years in cases involving price fixing, sex discrimination, defrauding the federal government and other violations of laws and regulations. In 2000 it paid $80 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit challenging the safety of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles the company was producing for the U.S. Army.

In recent years FMC has restructured itself, spinning off many of its operations. But it continues to battle with the federal government over regulatory issues. Its biggest fight has concerned the controversial pesticide carbofuran, sold by FMC under the name Furadan. In 2006 the Bush EPA finally acknowledged the product was so dangerous for humans and for animals that it should be completely banned, as the European Union has done.  The slow process of removing the product from the market has continued ever since, with FMC kicking and screaming in protest.

The company has been largely unsuccessful in its legal challenge up through the appellate level and has been considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It may now hope for relief from Congress instead.

The deregulatory juggernaut is nothing more than an effort to aid and abet the country’s worst corporate outlaws. We’ll be in big trouble if Issa and his ilk succeed.

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