Koch Industries Pollution

Koch and the Environment

Page - March 29, 2010
Koch Industries is a major polluter, with ongoing incidents and violations of environmental laws. Even when complying with the law, Koch companies can get away with heavy pollution.

Evidence published by Mother Jones senior editor Daniel Schulman in Sons of Wichita, the first biography on the Koch family, includes accusations from former Koch employees that violations of environmental law were systematic up to the highest levels of management. Koch's resistance to federal investigations of environmental violations went as far as spying on federal officials involved in lawsuits against Koch. In discussions of possibly making Koch a publicly-traded company, a lawyer for Koch warned that taking the public would land all of Koch's executives and board members in jail.

  • Subsidiaries of Koch Carbon have accumulated massive piles of petroleum coke in U.S. cities like Detroit and Chicago, where the toxic dust has blown into peoples' homes from a 5-story-tall pile of petcoke. Petcoke is a byproduct of refining tar sands that is usually burned like coal. Petcoke, which is more carbon-intensive than coal, is typically exported and burned in other countries with little to no air or climate regulations. While Detroit's mayor ordered Koch to move its petcoke pile, Chicago regulators and politicians have not acted with the same urgency despite sustained local protests from community members, nurses, and threats of lawsuits from environmental groups. In response, Koch claims it will add protections to its unlined pile, which could take two years.
  • Facing "enormous" cleanup costs for soil and groundwater contamination and high crude oil prices, Flint Hills announced in 2014 that it would permanently close its North Pole refinery outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Koch blames contamination on the refinery's previous owner, Williams Companies. 
  • Ongoing, permitted releases of hazardous chemicals including benzene, sulfuric acid, hydrogen cyanide from Koch's oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, where refinery communities experience high rates of illnesses known to be associated with the chemicals released.
  • In May 2001, Koch Industries paid $25 million to settle with the US Government over a long-standing suit brought by Bill Koch - one of the brothers bought out in 1983 - for the company's long-standing practice of illegally removing oil from federal and Indian lands.
  • In late 2000, the company was charged with covering up the illegal releases of 91 tons of the known carcinogen benzene from its refinery in Corpus Christi. Initially facing a 97-count indictment and potential fines of $350 million, Koch cut a deal with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to drop all major charges in exchange for a guilty plea for falsifying documents, and a $20 million settlement. Informing the federal case, a former Koch employee blew the whistle on the company for allegedly falsifying its emissions reports, downplaying the amounts of toxic chemicals it released.
  • In 2000, the EPA fined Koch Industries $30 million for its role in 300 oil spills that resulted in more than three million gallons of crude oil leaking into ponds, lakes, streams and coastal waters.
  • In 1999 a Koch subsidiary pleaded guilty to charges that it had negligently allowed aviation fuel to leak into waters near the Mississippi River from its refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota, and that it had illegally dumped a million gallons of high-ammonia wastewater onto the ground and into the Mississippi.
  • Koch's negligence toward environmental safety has led to tragic losses of life. In 1996, a rusty Koch pipeline leaked flammable butane near a Texas residential neighborhood. Warned by the smell of gas, two teenagers drove their truck toward the nearest payphone to call for help, but they never made it.  Sparks from their truck ignited the gas cloud and the two burned alive. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that "the probable cause of this accident was the failure of Koch to adequately protect its pipeline from corrosion" and the ineffectiveness of Koch's program to educate local residents about how to respond during a pipeline leak.

The inability of Koch companies to avoid pollution incidents stands in contrast with Charles Koch's "Guiding Principles" of his trademarked corporate management theory, "Market-Based Management," which states, "Strive for 10,000% compliance with all laws and regulations, which requires 100% of employees fully complying 100% of the time." This also excludes from consideration the ways in which Koch is permitted to legally pollute.

See also PolluterWatch profiles of Koch Industries, Charles Koch and David Koch.