"We lied. We covered up. We broke the law. We poisoned our own workers." Those are statements you probably won't hear at the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Responsible Care Conference in Orlando, Florida, which tees off* on Earth Day, April 22. Instead you'll hear something to the effect that "we've done nothing wrong and we'll never do it again. And to prove it, let's all go out and partner with green groups."
|These are actual xrays of BF Goodrich worker Bernard|
Skaggs' hands. The company knew that PVC would
cause bones to dissolve, but lied to workers.
Am I exaggerating the bizarreness of chemical industry logic? To answer that question, take a look at the controversy around "Trade Secrets," the Bill Moyers expose of corporate malfeasance that aired recently on PBS. The program gained access to a cache of industry documents, obtained during the discovery portion of a lawsuit against vinyl chloride manufacturers. The documents prove beyond doubt that the chemical industry covered up information about the harms of vinyl chloride and other chemicals, misleading its own workers, the government and the public.
After the program, ACC Vice President Terry Yosie dared to come on the air to discuss the show with Moyers. Amazingly, he expressed not a hint of regret to the victims shown in the film. Yosie thought Moyers should have pointed out that chemicals are needed for certain products that Americans buy and enjoy and are part of modern life. That was just one of many disturbing facets of the industry response to the Trade Secrets program.
Students of corporate environmentalism may have noticed three other industry reactions as well, all tried and true greenwash techniques.
In its response to the Moyers program, the American Chemistry Council is:
Using phony partnerships to cover-up.
In his opening statement, the Chemistry Council's Yosie referred to the industry's "...major partnership with one of this nation's leading environmental groups, Environmental Defense..." Yosie used the "major partnership" to bolster his suggestion that all chemicals on the market now are fully tested and safe.
This blatantly misleading point prompted Council's supposed partner, Environmental Defense, to write them demanding a retraction In reply, ACC President Fred Webber further obscured the topic by admitting Yosie was partly incorrect on a technical point, but failing to correct his essential misstatement. See: http://www.environmentaldefense.org/pubs/Filings/ACCletters.html
With all kinds of public/private partnerships in vogue, from local school boards to environmental non-profits to the United Nations, this exchange should provide a warning to all would-be partners of corporate polluters. When the going gets tough, these companies are ready to hide behind the cover of their non-profit partners. Environmental Defense Senior Attorney David Roe says there was no official partnership with the ACC. He acknowledges, however, that the two groups collaborated (with EPA) on the design of a major testing program for chemicals. Roe points out that the collaboration was sparked by Environmental Defense's report "Toxic Ignorance," which showed that most chemicals had in fact not been tested, at least not to public knowledge. In other words, the collaboration was entered only when the industry needed it to fend off criticism.
Environmental Defense's name has been used, and the word "partnership" abused, by an industry trying to cover a multitude of sins. But Environmental Defense has also unwittingly invited this sort of abuse through its own openly pro-business approach to environmental regulation. Unfortunately for them, some of the damage to Environmental Defense's integrity is done.
Claiming that voluntary initiatives are the solution.
A September 15, 1992 memo from the Chemical Manufacturer's Association, as the ACC was then known, reveals the real strategy behind voluntary programs:
"A general CMA policy on voluntary development of health, safety and environmental information will...potentially avert restrictive regulatory actions and legislative initiatives."
Moyers' Trade Secrets program further explains:
The idea of a chemical company voluntarily testing its product is not unlike efforts to voluntarily regulate their products. It is an attempt to pre-empt effective government. It is an attempt to try to stop the government from doing its job by doing half-baked measures and then claiming that we're protecting the public.
The ACC's main voluntary program is the 12-year old Responsible Care, developed in response to the disasters of Bhopal, and Love Canal, among others. But Responsible Care has profound flaws. It contains:
no timelines or measurements
no external monitoring or verification
a lack of industry awareness
The Environmental Working Group has shown that voluntary initiatives on right-to know questions, championed by Chemical Council, "always fail."
The ACC says Responsible Care is about chemical safety. And for that, says Environmental Defense's David Roe, we need "testing and disclosure." The ACC misled the public about those very issues on national television.
Taking credit for legislation it opposed.
The Chemical Council has set up an entire website, www.abouttradesecrets.com, to counter the Moyers program. On that website, and on the American Chemical Council Homepage, they list an aray of US legislation designed to control pollution and protect public health from toxic chemicals. But as Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group points out, the newly released documents confirm that the industry has opposed all of those pieces of legislation.
Bill Moyers gave the ACC's Terry Yosie the last word on his discussion program "I think you all know that what happened 40 years ago is no reflection of the kind of industry that we represent today" asserted Yosie.
At last, an indirect admission that there was something unacceptable about past poisonings and cover ups. But after Mr. Yosie's performance on PBS, we should ponder his last statement carefully. Most commercial chemicals -- a toxic soup of which are in all our bodies -- still have not been tested, at least not as far as the public knows. The chemical cover-up continues as of today, Earth Day 2001.
* Note to our readers in Florida: On Sunday April 22nd (Earth Day), the Repsonsible Care Conference attendees start off at 8A.M. with an "exciting networking opportunity," i.e., a golf outing at the Orange County National Crooked Cat Course in Orlando. We suggest it might be appropriate to greet them and ask them to convene a Responsible Care Chemical Industry Truth and Reconciliation Commission for next year's Conference.