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.