Giant Mining Firm’s Social Responsibility Claims: Rhetoric or Reality?

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious , even non-Alaskans may want to pay attention to the issue.

The Pebble mine project has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a background report on the company, which has just been released and is available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.

Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.

The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report find a troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of workplace accidents and fatalities.

The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa, where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum operations.

High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the issue late last year.

Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality.  Salmon eaters beware.

“Shocking” and “Disgraceful”

“Shocking” and “disgraceful” are not the sort of words we expect to hear from a corporate executive when referring to his or her own company, but that’s exactly what happened at a Senate hearing today about the conditions at Imperial Sugar. Those descriptors made up part of the testimony of Graham H. Graham, vice president for operations at the company, which was recently hit with a proposed fine of $5 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with conditions that caused a dust explosion (photo) earlier this year at its Port Wentworth, Georgia plant that killed 13 workers. Another fine of $3.7 million was proposed by OSHA in connection with similar problems at the company’s operation in Gramercy, Louisiana.

“It was without a doubt the dirtiest and most dangerous manufacturing plant I had ever come to,” said Graham about the non-union Port Wentworth refinery, which he toured after being hired by Imperial Sugar late last year. He claimed to have pointed out more than 400 safety violations and was in the process of having them corrected when the accident occurred. CEO John Sheptor, who declined to testify at today’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, told the Associated Press that Graham has “exaggerated numerous things regularly about our facilities.” Sheptor’s p.r. people should have told him that line doesn’t work when you have the blood of 13 workers on your hands.

In addition to the fines—which Imperial Sugar is contesting and in any event would not put too much of a dent in a company which in its last fiscal year had profits of $53 million on revenues of $875 million—AP reports that criminal charges are possible.

Any investigation should not stop with the immediate managers at the plants. The conditions at the Imperial Sugar refineries appear to have been so horrendous that the failure to clean them up must have in effect been a company policy emanating from the highest levels—the CEO and other top executives. Accountability should also fall on the members of the board of directors of the publicly traded company, whose non-executive members are the following:

– James J. Gaffney (Chairman), a consultant to investment funds affiliated with Goldman Sachs

– Curtis G. Anderson, chairman of the investment company Anderson Capital

– Gaylord O. Coan, former CEO of poultry processor Gold Kist

– Yves-Andre Istel, vice chairman of investment bank Rothschild Inc.

– Robert S. Kopriva, former CEO of Sara Lee Foods

– Gail A. Lione, executive vice president of Harley-Davidson

– David C. Moran, president of U.S. consumer products at H.J. Heinz

– John K. Sweeney, a managing director at investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Sweeney deserves special attention because Lehman Brothers is the largest shareholder in Imperial Sugar, with a 28 percent stake. Lehman claims that part of its corporate mission is to “be one of the most responsible investment banks.” It could show those words mean something by using its influence to get Imperial Sugar to start showing some concern about the safety of its workers.