Putting Off Corporate Absolution

February 10th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

I was just beginning to recover from President Obama’s dismaying speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when I found myself in the middle of another effort to gloss over the misdeeds of big business. This occurred at the annual conference of the BlueGreen Alliance, which brought together some 1,600 labor and environmental activists to discuss the prospects for a sustainable economy but also invited representatives of some supposedly enlightened corporations.

When we gathered for lunch on the first day we first had to listen to a presentation by David Kiser, a vice president at International Paper, which is listed in the conference program as one of the “Platinum Sponsors” of the event. Kiser went on about IP’s commitment to “environmental stewardship” and “caring for employees.”

I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. IP has one of the worst track records of any major corporation when it comes to both labor and environmental practices. Some of the earliest anti-corporate research I ever did was to assist a campaign launched by the Paperworkers union (now part of the Steelworkers, which co-founded the BlueGreen Alliance) to resist company demands for contract concessions in the 1980s.

After workers at an IP mill in Mobile, Alabama voted against the concessions, they were locked out by the company. The Mobile workers then made a coordinated bargaining pact with their counterparts at three other IP mills—in Jay, Maine, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and De Pere, Wisconsin—where contracts were expiring and the rank and file had decided to strike rather than concede.

IP responded by bringing in replacement workers from around the country, many of them recruited by BE&K, an Alabama-based construction company that had diversified into strikebreaking. The campaign by the striking and locked-out locals was eventually crushed by the company.

Yet during that campaign, workers at the mill in Jay, Maine (photo, from 1973) drew national attention to the environmental hazards of IP’s operations, which were a major contributor to the dioxin problem due to chlorine used in the paper bleaching process. The labor and environmental issues intersected in February 1988, when unskilled strikebreakers hired by the company accidentally broke the valve on a tank containing chlorine dioxide gas in pressurized liquid form. About 112,000 gallons of the liquid poured out and vaporized into a huge green cloud that floated out from the mill, forcing the evacuation of some 3,000 people from homes, schools and businesses. If the weather had been warmer and the winds weaker, many could have died.

Paperworker union members helped enact local ordinances in Jay that cracked down on IP’s emissions and pressured Maine state officials to file suit against the company for environmental violations. IP paid $885,000 to settle the charges. Later, the U.S. EPA also brought action against the company, which in 1991 pleaded guilty to five felony charges and paid a fine of $2.2 million. Over the following decade, IP was implicated in state and federal environmental violations in states such as New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Florida, California, Georgia and Virginia.

Since the early 2000s the company has been trying to rehabilitate its environmental image by actions such as donating land to conservation groups and appointing the head of one such group to its board of directors.  Yet the company remains a heavy polluter. In the EPA’s most recent Toxics Release Inventory, IP mills rank first and second among all paper facilities in the total volume of releases and account for 15 of the industry’s top 50 polluters, with total toxic releases of more than 43 million pounds.

IP’s labor relations are a lot less tumultuous these days, but in the last decade the company has slashed its U.S. hourly workforce from 45,000 down to 24,000.

The International Paper of 2011 is not the same as the IP of 1988, but I still find it difficult to regard the company as an ally in the effort to shape the green economy of the future. It takes a long time for the impact of past transgressions to dissipate.

This was brought home to me at another session at the BlueGreen Alliance conference. An official of the EPA was talking about how Recovery Act money is being used to help clean up a Superfund hazardous waste site in New Jersey where a long-defunct company had dumped large quantities of radioactive thorium once used in the production of gas lamps. Thorium, the EPA guy noted, has a half life of 14 billion years.

When the impact of business misbehavior can endure for eons, it will take more than a few social responsibility gestures to redeem corporate sinners.

One Response to “Putting Off Corporate Absolution”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Activism101, Linda Locke. Linda Locke said: You can't escape your past. Putting Off Corporate Absolution: "It takes more than CSR" to rebuild trust http://j.mp/fAQMW8 via @AddToAny […]

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