Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

De-Enforcement

Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Credit: AFGE

For the past two years, the Trump Administration has sought to give the impression it is dismantling large parts of the federal regulatory system. The effort is not only wrong-headed – it has largely been unsuccessful. Many of the moves to eliminate rules have been thwarted by court challenges.

Yet the administration has found another way to advance its goal of allowing rogue corporations to operate with much lower levels of oversight: it is reducing the ranks of federal employees whose job it is to enforce the regulations that remain on the books.

A recent overview by the Wall Street Journal found that staffing at the Environmental Protection Agency is down by about half since its height during President Obama’s second term. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was said to have the fewest workplace inspectors in decades.

Fewer inspectors means fewer inspections and lower levels of penalties imposed for infractions. Last year, Public Citizen and the Corporate Research Project, using data from Violation Tracker, published a report showing how penalty levels were sinking at virtually all the key agencies. The evidence suggests that the trend is continuing.

Some of the staffing decline is due to attrition. Many regulatory agency employees have retired or resigned because they can no longer bear to work to see their mission undermined by the political appointees Trump has installed. More than 700 left the EPA in first 12 months after the administration took office.

Trumpworld is no longer depending entirely on attrition to hollow out the EPA. Now the administration is engaged in a direct attack on the remaining employees at the agency. EPA management has just informed the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union at the EPA, that it will unilaterally impose changes in working conditions on 9,000 staffers.  

The changes, which AFGE is challenging with an unfair labor practice filing, would, among other things, bar employees from telecommuting and would severely limit the amount of time rank-and-file union representatives can spend on grievances and other workplace matters. AFGE reps would also be evicted from the office space at the agency currently being used for union activity. Grievance and arbitration rights themselves would also be put in jeopardy.

The moves by EPA management appear to be an indirect way of implementing harsh policies that Trump tried to implement through executive order last year, but which were blocked by a federal judge. “In the Trump world, there is no bargaining, only ultimatums,” stated Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former EPA enforcement attorney.  “Under these rules, important safeguards against political purges within the civil service would be removed.”

Trump has received a great deal of deserved criticism for his attacks on federal prosecutors and Congressional oversight, given the corrosive effect on the rule of law. The administration’s actions against staffers at agencies such as the EPA are just as dangerous for our system of regulatory enforcement.

Oligopolies and Regulatory Compliance

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

There is growing awareness of the dangers posed by Amazon’s ever-increasing market clout, but the concentration of economic power is not limited to that online retailer. More and more U.S. industries have become oligopolies, and in some sectors the top two companies now have a market share in excess of 50 percent.

This concentration is made clear to me each time I revise the parent-subsidiary data in Violation Tracker. In the just-completed quarterly update, which will be posted next week, I had to make adjustments to reflect about three dozen instances in which one of the companies in our universe of some 3,000 parent companies completed the acquisition of another.

Among these deals: the purchase of Aetna by CVS Health, the acquisition of Express Scripts by Cigna, and the purchase of industrial gas giant Praxair by its competitor Linde.

But the one that stood out to me was the acquisition of oil refiner Andeavor by Marathon Petroleum. Andeavor is the name adopted last year by Tesoro, one of the largest petroleum refiners in the country. Over the last two decades it has bought refineries from large corporations such as Shell and BP, and in 2016 it purchased all of Western Refining.

Marathon Petroleum, which was spun off from Marathon Oil in 2011, has grown through previous deals such as the takeover of the infamous BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, the site of a 2005 explosion in which 15 workers were killed.

The marriage of Marathon and Andeavor will create the largest oil refiner in the United States, but at the same time it will join together two companies with very checkered environmental, safety and labor records.

Marathon’s operations, including those previously owned by BP in Texas City, have amassed more than $920 million in penalties, according to Violation Tracker. This total includes a $334 million settlement with the EPA and the Justice Department covering air pollution at refineries in five states, along with two dozen OSHA penalties.

Andeavor has accumulated $467 million in penalties, most of which comes from a single giant settlement with the EPA in 2016. It also has had about two dozen significant OSHA fines.

The combined company’s page in the updated Violation Tracker, which will include other new data, will show a total of nearly $1.4 billion in penalties. This will put Marathon in the dubious club of only a few dozen mega-corporations that have racked up ten-figure totals in Violation Tracker. It will put the company higher on that list than the long-time environmental miscreant Exxon Mobil.

Aside from the economic consequences, growing concentration may also be weakening regulatory compliance. As industries become increasingly dominated by large corporations with a history of breaking the rules, it is likely that those violations will become even more common. That’s another reason to get tough on oligopolies.

Fake Environmental Regulation?

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

The Trump Administration likes to play with fire. Now it may be playing with a fire-resistant material that is also a deadly carcinogen. After years of receding as a public health threat, asbestos could make a comeback.

When Donald Trump joined his father in the New York real estate business in the late 1960s, the use of asbestos in high-rise construction was widespread. Yet within a few years it was revealed that the substance was highly dangerous for those who mined it, those who processed it and those who applied it. The hazard had actually been known for decades but had been kept secret by companies such as Johns-Manville in one of the most egregious corporate deceptions of the 20th Century. Paul Brodeur’s 1985 book on the subject was called Outrageous Misconduct.

Asbestos producers and users were hit with tens of thousands of lawsuits, which forced Manville and other companies into bankruptcy. Use of the material was largely eliminated and vast sums were spent to remove existing asbestos from countless buildings.

Donald Trump appears to be ignorant of this history. In 2012 he tweeted his support for asbestos, claiming that if it had been more widely used in the old World Trade Center the Twin Towers would have survived the 9/11 attack. He did not mention that asbestos fibers were present in the dust clouds generated by the disaster and are believed to be among the causes of the high rate of cancer among first responders and Ground Zero workers.

In recent days there have been reports suggesting that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency might be putting the president’s pro-asbestos sentiments into action.  In early July the EPA issued what is known as a significant new use rule (or SNUR), inviting manufacturers to petition the agency to seek approval for asbestos products. An article in Fast Company sounded the alarm, stating that the EPA “has made it easier for companies to begin using asbestos again.”

The EPA is vehemently denying that is the case, insisting that it is actually strengthening asbestos regulation. An agency scientist told CNN that “the SNUR is really a good news story for public health protection.” The argument is that the rule would allow the EPA on a case-by-case basis to impose restrictions that may not currently exist. Unfortunately, it’s true that the United States, unlike many other countries, never fully banned the use of asbestos.

It is difficult to believe that the EPA, which has engaged in a deregulatory frenzy since Trump took office, will suddenly abandon its industry friends and embrace public health considerations in responding to new asbestos proposals.

One industry player, the Russian asbestos producer Uralasbest, apparently does not think so. The company, encouraged by the EPA’s reluctance to push for a total ban on the material, is decorating its shipments with a seal of approval containing Trump’s face and the statement “Approved by Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.”

Bayer and Monsanto: Another Dubious Chemical Industry Marriage

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

If the chemical industry spent as much time on product safety as it does on corporate restructuring, the world would be a healthier place. In 2015 DuPont spun off a bunch of its operations with tainted environmental and safety records into a new company called Chemours. Then DuPont engineered a merger with its longtime rival Dow Chemical, which had its own checkered history, to form DowDuPont. The combined company is now making more structural adjustments.

More changes are in the works in connection with the recently completed merger of German chemical giant Bayer and Monsanto. This is another case of a marriage between two highly controversial corporations.

Bayer was one of the German companies that combined in the 1920s to form IG Farben, which would go on to use slave labor during the Nazi period and was then split up after the Second World War. The largest of the resulting companies were Bayer, BASF and Hoechst (now part of Sanofi).

As Bayer has stepped up its U.S. involvement over the past two decades it has gotten embroiled in one scandal after another. In 1997 one of its subsidiaries based in New Jersey pled guilty to criminal price-fixing and had to pay a $50 million fine. In 2000 Bayer had to pay $14 million to the federal government and the states to settle allegations that it inflated prices on drugs sold to the Medicaid program. In 2001 it was accused of price-gouging on the antibiotic Cipro, which was then in high demand because of the anthrax scare. It later had to pay $257 million to settle a federal lawsuit on Cipro overcharging.

In 2003 documents emerged suggesting that Bayer was aware of serious safety problems with its cholesterol drug Baycol long before the medication was withdrawn from the market. In 2004 Bayer had to pay a $66 million fine in another criminal price-fixing case. A 2008 explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in West Virginia that killed two workers led to regulatory penalties including a $5.6 million settlement with the EPA. A report found that management deficiencies played a significant role in creating the conditions that caused the explosion. Environmental and workplace safety fines have continued in recent years.

Monsanto, now absorbed into Bayer, was long one of the most hated corporations in the United States, due to the hardball tactics its employed in marketing genetically modified seeds and Roundup herbicides to farmers. It brought aggressive lawsuits against farmers accused of violating its patents. The company somehow managed to avoid antitrust charges, but in 2016 it was fined $80 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for accounting violations relating to Roundup.

Bayer’s pursuit of Monsanto is part of its effort to brand itself as a life sciences company rather than merely a chemical producer. Its three main divisions are Crop Science, Pharmaceuticals and Consumer Health (the latter being what used to be known as over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, which Bayer is credited with inventing).

Of these, the most problematic is crop science. Bayer, along with DowDuPont and ChemChina (which bought Syngenta), increasingly dominate world markets for seeds, pesticides and related agribusiness products, giving them unprecedented control over the global food supply. This may give us a headache no amount of aspirin can relieve.

Big Polluters and Big Penalties

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

At a moment when there is all too much talk in Washington about deregulation, a helpful counterpoint has arrived from the Political Economy Research Institute in the form of the latest edition of the Toxic 100, a compilation of the companies responsible for the highest volumes of industrial pollution.

The project, which has been providing this information since 2004, now has rankings on three kinds of pollution: air, water and greenhouse gases. The lists include environmental justice indicators that highlight the disproportionate effect on low-income and minority communities.

The companies on these lists represent some of the biggest threats to the physical well-being of the people of the United States.

The top tier of the air pollution list, which is based on data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, contains the kind of industrial giants one might expect: DowDuPont, General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell  and Arconic (a spinoff of Alcoa). Yet number one is the less well known Zachry Group, an engineering company that operates dirty manufacturing facilities in North Carolina and Texas. Also in the top ten is Berkshire Hathaway by virtue of its ownership of companies such as Johns Manville, Pacificorp and MidAmerican Energy.

The top tier of the greenhouse gas list, based on other EPA data, is dominated by companies operating lots of fossil fuel power plants: Southern Company, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and NRG Energy. These are the companies Trump is aiding with his attack on the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Berkshire Hathaway is the only parent company in the top ten on both the air and greenhouse gas lists; it ranks 21st in water pollution.

I could not resist the temptation to check where the companies that rank high on the Toxic 100 lists show up in Violation Tracker. This is partly because Rich Puchalsky, who serves as the data management specialist for the Toxic 100, has also played an essential role in the construction and expansion of Violation Tracker.

Rich kindly created for me a spreadsheet combining rankings from the two projects. Looking first at the Toxic Air 100, I see there are unsurprising overlaps with the 100 most penalized companies in Violation Tracker—BP, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Phillips 66, etc. Yet there are some very large air polluters that have faced much smaller penalties, including the Zachry Group cited above and TMS International, a steel industry service company. The EPA should take note.

As for the Greenhouse 100, there are expected overlaps with the Violation Tracker top 100—such as Duke Energy, American Electric Power, FirstEnergy, etc. But there are some discrepancies. Large CO2 emitters such as Energy Future Holdings, Great Plains Energy, and OGE Energy have not received substantial penalties. The EPA might want to check these as well.

Beyond the specifics of individual companies, there is a broader issue here: what is the connection between fines and emissions? Although the releases reported in the Toxic 100 are technically not illegal, those companies are likely to be creating unsanctioned emissions as well. Fines could bring about reductions in both categories. Yet many big polluters treat the penalties as a tolerable cost of doing business and fail to do enough to clean up their facilities. That suggests the need for newer and more effective forms of enforcement. Deregulation is not one of them.

Who Pays the Penalties for Volkswagen’s Crimes?

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

It’s refreshing to see the book thrown at a corporate criminal, but it would have been even better if federal prosecutors had aimed higher.

Oliver Schmidt, who had once been a mid-level manager at VW’s engineering and environmental office in Michigan, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the company’s long-running scheme to defraud the federal government in diesel emissions testing. The charges against him included conspiracy and violations of the Clean Air Act. He was also fined $400,000.

Schmidt, who was arrested when he foolishly came to the United States for a family vacation, must be pissed off at having to pay such a severe personal price while higher ranking VW officials back in Germany will probably remain unscathed. Appearing at his sentencing hearing in a prison jumpsuit with his wrists shackled, Schmidt admitted culpability and did not point the finger at any company superiors. However, he did not let VW completely off the hook.

In a letter to the judge overseeing his case, Schmidt said he felt “misused” by the company and that he was following VW talking points when he met with a California air pollution official in 2015 and concealed the existence of the software that made the cheating possible.

Schmidt could not have participated in a conspiracy all by himself. Yet the Justice Department does not appear to have tried very hard to land any bigger fish (though at least one person senior to Schmidt is being prosecuted in Germany).

Instead, the DOJ took the typical route of bringing a case against the company as a whole and letting it buy its way out of the entanglement. In 2015 the DOJ, along with the Federal Trade Commission and the State of California, agreed on a civil settlement under which VW had to spend up about $10 billion to compensate customers and $4.7 billion on pollution mitigation.

That was followed by a criminal case in which VW had to pay a $2.8 billion penalty. At least this involved a real criminal plea rather than one of those deferred-prosecution or non-prosecution shams, but it is unclear what consequences VW has faced beyond the payout.

The company is technically on probation and has a compliance monitor, but that will probably not mean much. Even before these cases, the company had already been under federal supervision because of a consent decree stemming from a 2005 case also involving emissions irregularities.

Given the severity of the VW cheating and the fact that it was in effect a repeat offense, the DOJ should have done more to prosecute top executives, and the case against the company itself should have had more than financial consequences.

Whereas strict limitations are placed on the activities of individual felons, VW has been able to go on operating as if the scandal had never happened. A case can be made that the company should have been shut out of the U.S. market, but instead it has been advertising heavily and seeking to regain market share. The main challenge is that it can no longer promote its vehicles under the banner of “clean diesel.” Presumably, VW is working on a new way to deceive the public.

Should Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s Petrochemical Industry?

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

Much of the Gulf region remains flooded, people are still being rescued, and the full magnitude of the damage is not yet known. But soon the center of attention will be the rebuilding effort and how to pay for it.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is talking about the need for a federal aid package well in excess of $100 billion. Whatever the amount turns out to be, the critical issue will be how the money is distributed.

It’s already clear that the petrochemical facilities clustered in southeastern Texas have been hard hit by the flooding, and there will no doubt be calls to use both federal and state financial resources to help repair these plants.

While there should be no hesitation about using public funds to help the people of the Gulf rebuild their lives, we shouldn’t automatically do the same for the petro giants.

The first reason is that these companies can well afford to rebuild on their own dime. Exxon Mobil, which owns the giant refinery in Baytown, earned more than $130 billion in profits during the past five years. The Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, another massive facility, is owned by Aramco, which in turn is owned by the fabulously wealthy government of Saudi Arabia.

Second, taxpayers made enormous financial contributions to the construction and operation of these facilities. As shown in Subsidy Tracker, the Motiva refinery was awarded a $257 million state and local subsidy package in 2006 to help underwrite its expansion. Earlier this year, Exxon and SABIC, another Saudi company, were granted a $460 million package to jointly build a petrochemical plant near Corpus Christi.

Apart from being subsidized, many of the Gulf region’s petrochemical plants have horrible compliance records regarding toxic emissions and worker safety. The most notorious example is the refinery in Texas City between Houston and Galveston that was previously owned by BP and subsequently sold to Marathon Petroleum. In the wake of a 2005 explosion at the facility that killed 15 workers, BP was fined a then record amount of $21 million by OSHA for a pattern of egregious safety violations in Texas City. The company failed to make the necessary corrections and was later hit with an even larger penalty. BP also had to pay nearly $180 million to settle a federal environmental case involving the refinery.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2013 Shell Oil had to pay more than $117 million to resolve Clean Air Act violations at its Deer Park refinery outside Houston. The chemical plant in Crosby, Texas owned by the French company Arkema, where flooding has caused explosions, was fined $107,918 earlier this year by OSHA for serious safety violations (company later negotiated a reduction down to $91,724).

Providing more subsidies for these facilities would in effect negate the impact of the penalties the corporations paid for their negligence.

Finally, there is the difficult question of whether all these facilities should be rebuilt at all, especially if taxpayer funds are involved. The Gulf refineries play a significant role in an energy system that exacerbates the climate crisis, which likely contributed to the intensity of Harvey. We may not be free of fossil fuels yet, but does it make sense to use public resources to prolong the life of facilities linked to extreme weather events that threaten our future?

Pitting Jobs Against the Environment Again

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Jobs versus the environment: The notion that the interests of workers were inherently anti-ecological was widely held in the 1980s. Much of the world now accepts that employment and environmental protection can go hand in hand, but the Trump Administration is trying hard to turn back the clock. Dismantling safeguards is presented as the key to job creation.

That same misguided approach can be seen in the terms of the deal that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker is offering the Taiwanese electronics firm Foxconn in exchange for a commitment to build a $10 billion flat-screen plant that will supposedly create up to 13,000 jobs.

The plan — which Walker announced at the White House along with Trump, Vice President Pence and  Speaker Paul Ryan, whose district is expected to be the site of the facility — is generating a great deal of controversy in Wisconsin over the $3 billion subsidy package the governor wants to offer the company.

Yet those special tax breaks are not the only incentive being dangled in front of Foxconn. The draft bill being considered by the state legislature would also free the company from having to file an environmental impact statement and exempt it from a variety of state environmental rules. It would also ease regulations for utilities that build facilities inside the special zone that would be created for Foxconn.

Environmental groups in the Badger State are sounding the alarm, but there is no indication that their concerns are having much of an impact on Walker, who has said that critics of the Foxconn deal can go “suck lemons.”

The special regulatory breaks Wisconsin has cooked up would be troubling in any project, but they are especially worrisome in this deal, given the company involved. It’s widely known that Foxconn has a lousy record on labor rights in Asia, but it also has a troubled history when it comes to the environment.

In 2011 a coalition of Chinese environmental groups published a report listing Foxconn as one of several Apple contractors whose operations were causing serious environmental damage. Two years later, the watchdogs released a film with footage they said showed Foxconn releasing water with high levels of heavy metals into a river feeding Shanghai’s Huangpu River.

Foxconn was also said to be lax when it came to workplace safety. An explosion at its iPad plant in Chengdu that killed three workers and injured 15 others was attributed to the accumulation of combustible dust.

As with its record of abusive labor practices, Foxconn has claimed that it has cleaned up its act on environmental matters. Maybe so, but any plant of the size that the company is promising will have an enormous impact on water and air quality in Wisconsin. Rather than weakening environmental safeguards, the state should be tightening them for this project.

Walker, who has a terrible track record on environmental issues, may be treating the Foxconn deal as an experiment in deregulation. Letting Walker — and by extension Trump, Pence and Ryan — use the Foxconn deal to bring back the bad old days of jobs-versus-the-environment would do no one any good.

The Emissions Scandal Widens

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Big business would have us believe that it is on the side of the angels when it comes to the Paris climate agreement. A group of large companies just published full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal urging (unsuccessfully, it turned out) President Trump to remain in the accord.

Not included in the list of blue chip signatories were the big auto producers, which may reflect the realization among those companies that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to present themselves as defenders of the environment.

On the contrary, recent developments could cause them to be regarded as among the worst environmental criminals. That’s because evidence is growing that the kind of emissions cheating associated with Volkswagen is more pervasive in the industry.

Recently, the Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a civil complaint against Fiat Chrysler alleging that the company produced more than 100,000 diesel vehicles with systems designed to evade federal emission standards. As a result, those vehicles end up producing pollutants (especially oxides of nitrogen or NOx) well above the acceptable levels set by EPA. In its announcement of the case, DOJ noted: “NOx pollution contributes to the formation of harmful smog and soot, exposure to which is linked to a number of respiratory- and cardiovascular-related health effects as well as premature death.” This is a polite way of accusing the company of homicide.

Around the same time, a class action lawsuit was filed against General Motors accusing the company of programming some of its heavy-duty pickup trucks to cheat on diesel emissions tests.

The two companies are responding differently. GM is denying the allegations, calling them “baseless” and vowing to defend itself “vigorously.” Fiat Chrysler tried to ward off the federal lawsuit by promising to modify the vehicles. It expressed disappointment at the DOJ filing but is still vowing to work with regulators to resolve the issue. Fiat Chrysler is also maintaining that its systems are different from those used by Volkswagen, which has had to pay out billions in settlements and criminal fines; several of its executives are facing individual criminal charges.

Whether the response involves stonewalling, remediation or splitting hairs, the emergence of these new cases turns the emissions scandal from one involving a single rogue corporation to a pattern of misconduct that may turn out to be standard practice throughout the auto sector.

This in turn raises broader issues about deregulation. The Trump Administration and its Republican allies in Congress try to depict corporations as helpless victims of regulatory overreach in need of relief. What the widening emissions scandal shows is that large companies are often instead flagrantly violating the rules and in doing so are putting public health at risk. Rather than relaxing regulation, policymakers should be intensifying oversight to make it harder for cheating to occur.

The car industry would be a good place to start. Misconduct among automakers dates back decades. It was GM’s resistance to safety improvements that inspired Ralph Nader to launch the modern public interest movement in the 1960’s, and it was Ford’s negligence in the deadly Pinto scandal of the 1970s that gave new meaning to corporate greed and irresponsibility. It’s time for these companies to clean up their act once and for all.

Targeting Those at the Top

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

It remains to be seen how high the new special counsel Robert Mueller aims his probe of the Trump campaign, but there are reports that another prominent investigation is targeting those at the top. German prosecutors are said to be examining the role of Volkswagen chief executive Matthias Muller and his predecessor Martin Winterkorn in the emissions cheating scheme perpetrated by the automaker. They are also looking at the chairman of Porsche SE, which has a controlling interest in VW.

Mueller and Muller, by the way, have more of a connection than the similarity of their names. Last year, the former FBI director was chosen by a federal judge to serve as the “settlement master” to help resolve hundreds of lawsuits brought against VW in U.S. courts. Mueller has played a similar role regarding suits brought against Japanese airbag maker Takata.

Although Winterkorn was forced to resign after the emissions scandal erupted in 2015, he and Muller — who was VW’s head of product planning while the cheating was taking place — denied any wrongdoing, and the company sought to pin the blame on lower-level managers.

The initial U.S. Justice Department case against VW named no executives at all, though a company engineer later pleaded guilty to fraud charges and in January DOJ indicted six other VW middle managers.

There is no question that many individuals had to be involved in a scheme as widespread as the one at VW. Although it was corrupt, VW was also bureaucratic, so it is to be expected that lower-level managers either sought permission from their superiors for undertaking a risky scheme — or they were carrying out a plot that originated from above.

In fact, the New York Times reports that it has been shown internal company emails and memos suggesting that VW engineers implementing the scheme were operating with the knowledge and consent of top managers.

As the evidence mounts, the issue for German prosecutors may no longer be whether the likes of Muller and Winterkorn were involved but whether they, the prosecutors, are willing to bring charges against those at the apex of the corporate hierarchy.

In the United States, a reluctance to take that step has tainted the prosecution of business crime for more than a decade. At a time when discussion of whether anyone is above the law is the focus of discussion in the government realm, we should not forget that the principle applies in the corporate sector as well.