Dodgy deals and irresponsible care

Feature story - March 16, 2004
A recently leaked document has revealed the secret plans of the American Chemistry Council to trash anti-pollution laws in California. The internal memo, a proposal from PR firm Nichols-Dezenhall, outlines tactics such as the creation of phoney front groups and spying on activists to undermine pioneering laws that protect the environment. Unfortunately the Chemistry Council is just one of many industry front groups dedicated to making sure nothing interferes with corporate profits.

Monica Gibbs grew up next to a chemical plant in an area known as Cancer Alley in southern Louisiana. She has suffered from respiratory problems since birth. Toothless voluntary codes and anti-regulatory lobbying by front groups leave the vulnerable, like Monica, to suffer the effects of corporate pollution.

Why is the American Chemistry Council (ACC) taking proposals for spying and hiding behind front groups to covertly campaign against more chemical safety testing?

First a little background. On its website, the Council proclaims itself to be "committed to improved environmental, health and safety performance through Responsible Care, common sense advocacy designed to address major public policy issues, and health and environmental research and product testing."

Sounds all fine and dandy doesn't it? But as the document helps evidence, the Council is really a lobbying body funded by the chemistry industry. Their unwritten mission is to ensure industry profits are not hindered by government regulations.

To be avoided at all costs

One concept the chemical industry really doesn't like is called the precautionary principle. This means that new chemicals must be proved safe before they can be produced on environmental and health grounds. This principle is becoming established in laws in Europe but has yet to gain a foothold in the US.

What the US chemicals industry really fears is that new laws on chemicals being debated in the EU will inspire new laws in the US. The proposed EU laws place more emphasis on protection the environment and health. So the industry is fighting tooth and nail against the new laws in Europe with, of course, help from the corporate-friendly US administration.

To prevent the precautionary principle gaining a foothold in California the memo, obtained by the Environmental Working Group through an undisclosed source, recommends to ACC members that they pay US$120,000 a year to Public Relations and 'marketplace defence' firm, Nichols-Dezenhall. This firm reportedly hires former FBI and CIA agents to conduct selective intelligence gathering about the plans, motivations and allies of opposition. The memo says Nichols-Dezenhall would also create an independent watchdog group to act as an information clearinghouse and attack the precautionary principle laws in public and media forums.

The memo is a rare, but not unique, glimpse into the murky world of front groups, misinformation and smears that typify the lengths certain companies and industries go to prevent effective regulation. Of course the ACC website contains no reference to the memo or such tactics. The site crows about how members are signed up to its voluntary Responsible Care program to prevent harm to the environment. But scratch the surface of the programme and all is not so rosy.

Responsible Care?

 

ExxonMobil Chemical is a member of the ACC. And Exxonmobil/Esso is no stranger to using front groups to undermine environmental protection. In September last year another leaked memo revealed that the Competitive Enterprise Institute was suing the US Environmental Protection Agency seemingly with the collusion of another part of the Bush Administration. The lawsuit was an attempt to gag a report on climate change that would contradict the Bush stance of doing nothing. ExxonMobil just happens to be a leading funder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. That will be responsible care for the climate then?

To combat concerns over genetically engineered (GE) foods, Monsanto uses PR companies who create fake online citizens to denounce the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GE crops. These fake citizens reportedly started a campaign that succeeded in getting one of the world's foremost scientific journals to do something it has never done before: retract a published paper on GE contamination of crops. Monsanto is another member of the ACC. Fake online citizens and disinformation must be part of the "common sense advocacy designed to address major public policy issues" of Responsible Care.

The much vaunted Responsible Care program is the result of the world's worst industrial disaster when a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Toxic gas leaked from the poorly maintained and understaffed plant owned by Union Carbide, killing up to 20,000 people to date and leaving 120,000 chronically ill. Dow Chemical took over Union Carbide and is a proud member of the Responsible Care program. But 20 years on the plant, abandoned on the night of the disaster, still bleeds poisons into the groundwater of the surrounding communities. Survivors have received little or no compensation.

Closer to home Dow has been working hard to avoid cleaning up the toxic pollution around its global headquarters in Michigan. Dioxin pollution was discovered downstream from the plant up to 80 times the state safety level. Rather than clean it up, Dow has attempted to negotiate raising the state safety level to absolve itself of responsibility. So the residents of Bhopal and Michigan should obviously take with a large pinch of salt the claim of Responsible Care "to lead in the development of responsible laws, regulations and standards that safeguard the community, workplace and environment."

So next time you hear an 'expert' in the media expounding a point of view that sounds remarkably similar to the position of a corporate interest, check who is paying for their microphone. If you see a corporation talking up its worthy "voluntary programmes" for protecting the environment, it could just be trying to avoid government regulation that can be enforced by law.

 

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