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Remembering Oil Spills, Old and New

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 13th, 2007

The week opened with the start of a four month trial against France's oil giant, Total, by groups like Friends of the Earth France.

The Paris tribunal will examine the 1999 Erika tanker disaster that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 250 miles of coastline and caused $1.3 billion in damage. At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast and up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Observers say this may also turn into a trial of the "globalized" international shipping system as the Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the state of New York against Exxon and four other companies has recently been announced. This suit addresses an oil spill from the 1950's that was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak in Alaska, but lay undiscovered until 1978. According to New York state attorney Andrew Cuomo, Exxon has been slow to clean up, with an estimated eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts still underground and toxic vapors from the ground threatening neighborhood health.

A Bloomberg article quotes local residents:

"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it,'' said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil.''


In other oil spill news, Lagos' Vanguard newspaper reported today that ten Ijaw communities had been displaced and 500 made homeless by a Chevron Nigeria oil spill.

The report quotes Gbabor Okrika, the councilor representing the affected communities:

"Chevron is not bothered about the health of the people they are only concerned about their operations and they have now started a process that can only divide the people and create further division among them."

Also, last month's massive leak in the Chad Cameroon Pipeline caused a storm of criticism regarding the environmental safety of this project. This Exxon-managed pipeline extends from landlocked Chad through Cameroon and extends 11 kilometers off the coast into the Atlantic. This project, which is overseen by the World Bank, has already received much criticism due to money from this project fueling conflict in Chad.

IRIN News quoted Kribi Mayor Gregoire Mba Mba:

"Our town lives on fishing and tourism. If more incidents like this or worse occur it is the economic future of the town that is threatened."

Environmental groups are warning that a similar spill could happen in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline operated by BP that transports crude 1750 kilometers from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, a coalition of Azeri, British and US watchdog groups leaked a report from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which says that cracks and leakages in the coating of the pipeline will need to be monitored closely.

Jordan: The New Saipan

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 8th, 2006

I received an urgent update from Charlie Kernaghan over that the National Labor Committee about the situation in Jordan, where a free-trade arrangement has created a labor force of indentured servants, and spawned a human-trafficking industry. He writes:

Tens of thousands of foreign guest workers, stripped of their passports, trapped in involuntary servitude, sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Thalia Sodi for Kmart, Victoria's Secret, L.L.Bean and others.

In the Western factory, which was producing for Wal-Mart, four young women, including a 16-year old girl, were raped by plant managers. Despite being forced to work 109 hours a week, including 20-hour shifts, the workers received no wages for six months. Workers who fell asleep from exhaustion were struck with a ruler to wake them up.

At the Al Shahaed factory, also producing for Wal-Mart, there were 24, 38 and even 72-hour shifts. The workers were paid an average wage of two cents an hour. Workers were slapped, kicked, punched and hit with sticks and belts.

In a factory called Al Safa, which was sewing garments for Gloria Vanderbilt, a young woman hung herself after being raped by a manager.

The issue isn't news to us, since we've been on top of the issue for years. In 2003 we reported that the free-trade agreement inked with the U.S. had some very political overtones:

Late last year (2002), Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney paid a visit to the Al-Tajamout compound. The State Department official is also the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Jordan is a strategic tool for both the US and Israel," Marar says, noting the importance of the visit.

And yet, Jordanians own almost none of the factories. Most are owned and operated by entrepreneurs from China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Pakistan or the Philippines who import workers from over-seas.

Of the some 40 thousand workers employed in these Qualified Industrial Zones, fewer than half are Jordanian. Ninety percent are women under the age of 22, and almost all of them pay the minimum wage, about $3.50 a day.

Factory owner Syed Adil Ali says his factory only contracts Sri Lankan girls.

"They are very peace minded girls," he says. "I found some kind of problem with the boys. They made some kind of union, some kind of disturbance in the factory. So we prefer the girls."

And while we roll our eyes that The New York Times only managed to sniff out the story three years later, we give them props for a pretty good story on it last week.

The Old "When in Rome" Excuse

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 19th, 2006

Great article by Richard Cohen in today's New York Times about Microsoft's recent willingness to cave in to the Chinese government and shut down an MSN blog by a Chinese journalist that criticized the current regime. They, of course, follow Cisco Systems, which sells the equipment the Chinese government uses to censor the Web and Yahoo, who revealed the contact information for a dissident who is, as a result, now in a prison camp doing 10 years hard labor.

This is just the same old birthday suit on a new emporer. The Gap, Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart and scores of other corporations who farm out manufacturing to subcontractors in developing nations have used the same tired excuse: Sure, the working conditions are bad, the labor and evironmental laws are nonexistent, and the pay is paltry - but that's how everyone does it in (insert country here). It's a positively Clintonian splitting of factual hairs - we're not breaking any local laws, we're complying with the local custom. They conveniently ignore the moral implication if, say, the local custom is to whip children who don't meet their quotas. The same semantic jig is on display whenever one of these multinationals falls back on the old reliable "we don't own the factory, so we can't be held responsible for what a factory owner does."

It is remarkable, and remarkably sad, that companies like Microsoft who have grown incomprehensibly huge and prosperous precisely because of certain freedoms and ideals that make America great, yet they choose to sell out other freedoms and ideals when it is convenient. For shame.

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