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Bad Karma in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Disaster

Posted by Phil Mattera on May 10th, 2010

Originally posted on May 7 at Dirt Digger's Digest.

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British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of them died in the April 20 explosion).

Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades. One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in 1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.

In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks: “There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).

At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only $2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.

In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel executive bonuses.  It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.

Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in 1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices were there.

In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and criminal tax investigations in Norway.

In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in Nigeria. No charges have been filed.

An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to this tragic situation.




Oil spill changes everything

Posted by Michael Brune on May 2nd, 2010

Originally posted on CNN.com on May 1.

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Michael Brune

Editor's note: Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club and former director of the Rainforest Action Network.

The oil disaster plaguing the Gulf of Mexico and our coastal states puts our desperate need for a new clean energy economy in stark relief. We need to move away from dirty, dangerous and deadly energy sources.

We are pleased that the White House is now saying it will suspend any new offshore drilling while the explosion and spill are investigated, but there should be no doubt left that drilling will only harm our coasts and the people who live there.

Taking a temporary break from offshore drilling is an important step, but it's not enough. We need to stop new offshore drilling for good, now. And then we need an aggressive plan to wean America from dirty fossil fuels in the next two decades.

This BP offshore rig that exploded was supposed to be state-of-the-art. We've also been assured again and again that the hundreds of offshore drilling rigs along our beaches are completely safe. Now, we've seen workers tragically killed. We've seen our ocean lit on fire, and now we're watching hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic oil seep toward wetlands and wildlife habitat.

This rig's well is leaking 210,000 gallons of crude every day, wiping out aquatic life and smothering the coastal wetlands of Louisiana and Mississippi. As the reeking slick spreads over thousands of square miles of ocean, it rapidly approaches the title of worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, even worse than 1989's Exxon Valdez oil spill. The well is under 5,000 feet of water, and it could take weeks or even months to cap it.

This disaster could unfortunately happen at any one of the hundreds of drilling platforms off our coasts, at any moment. It could happen at the drilling sites that the oil industry has proposed opening along the beaches of the Atlantic Coast.

Indeed, even before this spill, the oil and gas industry had torn apart the coastal wetlands of the Louisiana Bayou over the years. These drilling operations have caused Louisiana to lose 25 square miles of coastal wetlands, which are natural storm barriers, each year.

Another view: Why it won't be easy to replace fossil fuels

And it's hardly just the environmental costs of oil spills that we have to worry about with offshore drilling. The threat to the people who work on these platforms has again become terribly clear. In fact, more than 500 fires on oil platforms in the Gulf have injured or killed dozens of workers in just the past four years, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.

We don't need to pay this price for energy. We have plenty of clean energy solutions in place that will end our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, create good, safe jobs and breathe new life into our economy.

One huge example came Thursday, when the Obama administration approved our country's first offshore wind farm.

Our country has huge solar power potential as well. We can also save more oil through simple efficiency measures than could be recovered by new drilling on our coastlines.

This oil spill changes everything. We have hit rock-bottom in our fossil fuel addiction. This tragedy should be a wake-up call. It's time to take offshore drilling off the table for good.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.




Banana Land and the Corporate Death Squad Scandals

Posted by Charlie Cray on February 25th, 2010

American based food companies are facing a spate of lawsuits charging that they have cooperated with and paid off groups officially designated as terrorists by the U.S. government.

In February, a federal judge refused to dismiss a civil suit filed against Chiquita, a global corporation that markets itself for “products and services [that] are designed to win the hearts and smiles of the world's consumers.”
 [http://www.chiquitabrands.com/CompanyInfo/CompanyInfo.aspx] The suit makes the less cheerful charge that the company paid “protection” money to leftist (FARC) guerrillas operating near its plantations in Colombia -- during a period when the FARC killed four American missionaries.

Families of the missionaries who are bringing this case (Julin et al. v. Chiquita Brands Int’l) to Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida are suing Chiquita under the civil provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991, which allows American citizens and their heirs to be compensated for injuries resulting from international terrorism.

This is not the first time that Chiquita has faced charges of complicity with “terrorists.” In March 2007, (US v. Chiquita Brands Intl) the company had pled guilty to violating U.S. antiterrorism laws by funding the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (“AUC”). In the U.S. Department of Justice’s Factual Proffer to the Court in conjunction with Chiquita’s plea agreement in the 2007 case, the Justice Department stated that it could prove Chiquita made similar payments to FARC from 1989 through 1997. Both FARC and the AUC have been officially designated by the State Dept. as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”

Meanwhile, Dole is facing similar charges. The families of former plantation workers and land squatters are suing the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Los Angeles Superior Court of California. The plaintiffs' complaint in Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc., details a horrific litany of summary executions, off-the-bus abductions, forced-entry murders, kidnappings, ghoulish disappearances, and other crimes committed against trade unionists and land reform activists between 1997 and 2008 – the period when Dole, like Chiquita, allegedly supported the paramilitary AUC.

While Dole has denied making payments, Chiquita has taken a different route, voluntarily telling the Department of Justice about the payments. Its consistent position has been that both the left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries extorted cash "to protect the lives of its employees." http://dolecsr.com/PressSection/PressReleases/April292009/tabid/5853/Default.aspx

Both positions have become increasingly untenable now that paramilitaries who took the payments have come in from the cold. In exchange for disarming, submitting to Colombia's "Justice and Peace" process, and confessing to all their crimes, the former combatants have been promised reduced jail time.

Dole’s denial of pay offs is contradicted by sworn affidavits filed in the ongoing litigation. Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo (aka "Carlos Tijeras") was the former commander of the William Rivas Front of the AUC group that operated in northern Colombia, in the zone where the companies and their suppliers grew bananas. In a sworn statement, Tijeras described the AUC's relationship with the head of plantations controlled or owned by both Dole and Chiquita as "an open public relationship" involving everything from "security services" to the kidnapping and extrajudicial assassination of labor leaders fingered by the companies as "security problems."

Tijeras' statement–which reads like the confessions of a corporate death squad leader and directly refutes his paymasters' version of events – was entered into the record in the California case  (Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc), filed against Dole in April 2009 by attorneys with Conrad and Scherer, representing the families of the 73 people killed by the AUC.

“I've been told that Chiquita has asserted that they paid the AUC funds, but that this was coerced and was a form of extortion,” Tijeras states. “I have also heard that Dole claims to have never paid us any funds. Both of these assertions are absolutely false. In fact, my agreement with Chiquita and Dole was to provide them with total security and other services.”

“These terrorists have every reason to lie by making false allegations against international companies like Dole in order to minimize their own culpability and reduce their jail time,” said C. Michael Carter, Dole's Executive Vice President and General Counsel.  "This lawsuit is irresponsible and the allegations are blatantly false."

Tijeras is not the only paramilitary to put some of the blame on the companies. Salvatore Mancuso, the overall commander of the AUC, also testified in early 2008 that Dole and Del Monte, like Chiquita, had been providing major support to the AUC since its inception. He repeated the accusation to 60 Minutes, which originally aired the segment in September 2008.

According to these and other witnesses, as well as investigators familiar with the bloody history of Colombia, the companies originally hired the AUC to drive the leftist FARC guerillas out of the banana-growing region and protect their plantations from, as Tijeras put it, "the gangs of common delinquents that robbed their supplies and equipment." Once the FARC was vanquished and order restored, the banana companies continued to pay the AUC to "pacify" their work forces, suppress the labor unions, and terrorize peasant squatters perusing competing land claims.

Tijeras:
After we restored order and became the local agents of law enforcement, managers for Chiquita and Dole plantations relied upon us to respond to their complaints. ...We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as "security problems" or just "problems." Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified person. In most cases those executed were union leaders or members or individuals seeking to hold or reclaim land that Dole or Chiquita wanted for banana cultivation, and the Dole or Chiquita administrators would report to the AUC that these individuals were suspected guerillas or criminals.

According to Tijeras, for years the companies provided up to 90 percent of the AUC's income.

When the families and heirs of dozens of victims filed the case against Dole in April 2009, the company immediately rejected the charges as "baseless allegations" that "are the product of the most untrustworthy sources imaginable" and "nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Colombia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time."

Dole’s use of the term “terrorist” to refer to the AUC accurately reflects the official U.S. State Department categorization of the group assigned (coincidentally) on September 10, 2001. That designation carries legal consequences for both Dole (if evidence of the payments is proven) and Chiquita: First, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 allows U.S. citizens and their heirs to sue over injuries from international terrorism; and second, payments to designated terrorists are illegal even if coerced -- and whether or not the company is cognizant of or indifferent to the consequences.

The ongoing case against Chiquita in Florida is strengthened by the company’s March 2007 guilty plea in U.S. v. Chiquita Brands International, Inc., by its voluntarily disclosure of payments, and by its agreement to pay a $25 million criminal fine for violating U.S. antiterrorism laws. The 2007 Chiquita criminal case was remarkable for numerous revelations, not least that the company continued to make the payments against the advice of its own outside counsel, and even after notifying the Justice Department.

As part of that settlement, Chiquita acknowledged that it had also made payments to the FARC from 1989 to at least 1997 -- a period, according to relatives, when the guerrilla group abducted and killed the missionaries.

Pattern of Complicity with Terror
It has been almost 3 years since Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, launched an investigation into U.S. multinationals' complicity with human rights violations in Colombia. At a June 2007 hearing, witnesses testified that there was a pattern of complicity between Colombian terrorists and multinational corporations  -- including the Alabama-based Drummond Co. Inc., which allegedly paid members of a Colombian terrorist group to kill three union organizers. The Miami Herald reported just days before the hearing that paramilitaries had also come forward to talk in detail about payments Drummond made to the paramilitaries.

Drummond denies all allegations against the company and its employees made by attorneys working for relatives of murdered Drummond employees.

Other companies with operations in Colombia that were mentioned at Delahunt's hearing include Occidental, Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil.
An "independent" review commissioned by the company's board reinforced Chiquita's claim that its sole motivation in making payments to both the FARC and the AUC was to protect the lives of its employees.

That report may help deflect derivative lawsuits filed by the company's own shareholders, but is greeted with skepticism in Colombia, where Attorney General Mario Iguaran roundly rejected Chiquita's explanation, and reportedly threatened to extradite as many as eight Chiquita executives (including John Paul Olivo, Charles Dennis Keiser, and Dorn Robert Wenninger) who, he says, were responsible for approving the payments and maintaining a "criminal relationship" with the paramilitaries.

Another remarkable aspect of the Chiquita case is the fact that the lead attorney representing Chiquita Brands International is now the U.S. attorney general.

In August 2007, when he was still representing Chiquita, Eric Holder told the Washington Post that it would be unfair to treat "harshly" any company that voluntarily discloses payments to designated terrorists, and that even if the company was penalized, the individuals within the firm should not be. Yet just a few years before he first passed through the revolving door, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Holder authored the "Holder Memo," a famous corporate crime policy memo asserting that the "prosecution of a corporation is not a substitute for the prosecution of criminally culpable individuals within or without the corporation."

Jason Glaser, a documentary filmmaker who helped launch the Banana Land Campaign in December, says that Attorney General Holder has a clear conflict of interest and should recuse himself from any decision concerning the requested extradition of Chiquita executives or any other matter related to the investigation of multinational complicity in violence in Colombia.

“Holder is the nation's top cop, overseeing a department that regularly claims that fighting terrorism is a top priority,” Glaser points out. “If that’s true, then it's worth asking where’s the Department's investigation of Dole, which, unlike Chiquita won't volunteer any facts, and patently deny any allegations - when there is so much obvious evidence pointing their way?”

To learn more about the situation in Colombia and other countries check out The Banana Land Campaign and International Rights Advocates.

Chipotle Grilled!

Posted by Denver Fair Food on July 31st, 2009

Originally posted on July 23 at http://denverfairfood.blogspot.com/2009/07/chipotle-grilled.html.

Chipotle is getting burned by the very scheme it cooked up as what it thought was a great public relations opportunity - sponsoring free screenings of Food, Inc. - is becoming a PR fiasco.

Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner and co-producer Eric Schlosser speak out and Chipotle has to answer tough questions in Tom Philpott's must-read article on Grist.org "Chipotle Grilled: Burrito chain’s Food, Inc. sponsorship generates off-screen drama over farm-worker issues."

Schlosser explains that while many of Chipotle's efforts are great, he nonetheless "cares more about human rights than any of those things." He continues: "If Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s can reach agreement with the CIW, I don’t see why Chipotle can’t."

Kenner likewise, the article states, "made clear that he disagreed with the company’s position on the CIW" even if he agrees with other things Chipotle is doing. Kenner explains: "I was hopeful that by associating itself with a film that promotes workers’ rights, [Chipotle] might be inclined to sign with the Coalition . . . And now I’m not confident they will.”

Our cameo in this unfolding fiasco is also noted: "Chipotle clearly resents such critical statements at events designed to demonstrate its sustainability cred. At one of its screenings in Denver, Chipotle employees barred people from the Campaign for Fair Food to speak after the screening—overturning an arrangement that had been made with Food, Inc’s public-education campaign. " After investigating the incident, the article decides: "In other words, people wanting to discuss the CIW issue aren’t to be given stage time at the Chipotle-sponsored Food, Inc. screenings."

Our story of Chipotle's eagerness to shut up members of Denver Fair Food has really made a splash on the internet, appearing on the websites of the Organic Cosumers Association, the Coporate Ethics Network, US Indymedia, and others.

Of course Denver wasn't the only city where Chipotle got heat from Fair Food activists while trying to bask in Food, Inc.'s glory. All over the country allies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers took to the movies to deflate Chipotle's hot air about "food with integrity" with some sharp truths about farm labor in Chipotle's supply chain. See the great photo report from the nationwide "Battle of the Burrito" on the CIW website.

References to this PR fiasco are popping up in unforseen places such as thedailygreen or even more surprising the mainstream investor blog The Motely Fool. And the bed which Chipotle made for itself in which it now must lie can't be feeling any more comfortable.

The lesson for Chipotle to learn from its bungled Food, Inc. PR experiment? The ecorazzi blog has these fitting words: "you can’t have your 1000+ calorie burrito and eat it too."

Wal-Mart’s (Un)sustainability Index

Posted by Philip Mattera on July 24th, 2009

Originally posted on July 24 at http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/703.

Wal-Mart has taken the latest in a long series of steps to make itself look good by imposing burdens on its suppliers. The mammoth retailer, which is thriving amid the recession, recently announced plans to require its more than 100,000 suppliers to provide information about their operations that would form the basis of a product sustainability index.

Rating products is a good idea. It’s already being done by various non-profit organizations that bring independence and legitimacy to the process. Wal-Mart, by contrast, brings a lot of negative baggage. In recent years, Wal-Mart has used a purported commitment to environmental responsibility to draw attention away from its abysmal record with regard to labor relations, wage and hour regulations, and employment discrimination laws. It also wants us to forget its scandalous tax avoidance policies and its disastrous impact on small competitors. The idea that a company with a business model based on automobile-dependent customers and exploitative supplier factories on the other side of the globe can be considered sustainable should be dismissed out of hand. Yet Wal-Mart is skilled at greenwashing and is, alas, being taken seriously by many observers who should know better.

On close examination, Wal-Mart’s latest plan is, like many of its previous social responsibility initiatives, rather thin. All the company is doing at first is to ask suppliers to answer 15 questions. Ten of these involve environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, waste generation and raw materials sourcing. The final five questions are listed under the heading of “People and Community: Ensuring Responsible and Ethical Production.”

Two of them involve “social compliance.” It is an amazing act of chutzpah for Wal-Mart, which probably keeps more sweatshops in business than any other company, to claim moral authority to ask suppliers about the treatment of workers in their supply chain.

The questions in this category seem to assume that suppliers don’t do their own manufacturing. This is a tacit acknowledgement of how Wal-Mart has forced U.S. manufacturers to shift production offshore, and often to outside contractors. Now Wal-Mart has to ask those companies to be sure they know the location of all the plants making their products and the quality of their output.

The point about quality was one that CEO Mike Duke (photo) emphasized when announcing the rating system. This is also highly disingenuous. For years, Wal-Mart was notorious for pressing suppliers to reduce the quality of their goods to keep down prices. Now the behemoth of Bentonville is suddenly a proponent of proponent of products that “are more efficient, that last longer and perform better.” Will Wal-Mart pay its suppliers higher prices to cover the costs of improving quality?

goodguideI can’t bring myself to jump on Wal-Mart’s bandwagon. If I want product ratings I will turn not to Mike Duke but rather to someone like Dara O’Rourke, who founded a website called Good Guide that rates consumer products and their producers using independently collected data from social investing firms such as KLD Research and non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group. It uses criteria such as labor rights, cancer risks and reproductive health hazards that are unlikely to ever find their way into the Wal-Mart index.

Good Guide also rates companies, including Wal-Mart, which receives a mediocre score of 5.3 (out of 10), and it reaches that level thanks to its marks on p.r.-related measures such as charitable contributions and some but not all environmental measures. In the category of Consumers it gets a 4.1, Corporate Ethics 3.9, and for Labor and Human Rights 4.1 (which is generous).

Maybe Wal-Mart should focus on improving its own scores before presuming to rate everyone else.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

What's not in Chevron's annual report

Posted by Cameron Scott on May 26th, 2009

Originally posted at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/green/detail?entry_id=40674

When people with strong ideological perspectives are often outraged by media coverage of their pet issues. When both sides are mad, you know you're doing something right. But how often do you hear corporations furious about they way they are covered in the business section? The section seems to lend itself to favor-currying and soft-shoeing.

In the lead-up to Chevron's annual shareholders meeting tomorrow in San Ramon, the company landed a puff piece on KGO focusing on its efforts to decrease its water usage. No mention of the Amazon controversy, and no mention of outside pressure on Chevron, EBMUD's largest water user.

I'm disappointed to say that a Chronicle interview with the company's top lawyer also softballs the issues, while giving Chevron the opportunity to present its side of the story with no opportunity for response from the company's many critics. [Update: Chron editors tell me there will be more coverage of Chevron later in the week.]

Well, Chevron's opponents, including San Francisco's Amazon Watch, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing an alternate annual report that presents the externalities not listed in the company's balance sheet, which shows a record profit of $24 billion, making the company the second most profitable in the United States.

Did you know that Chevron's Richmond refinery was built in 1902 and emitted 100,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2007, consisting of no less than 38 toxic substances? The EPA ranks it as one of the worst refineries in the nation. With 17,000 people living within 3 miles from the plant, you'd think the San Ramon-based company would take local heat from more than just a couple dozen activists.

Chevron has sought to brand itself an "energy" company, one eagerly pursuing alternatives to petroleum. Its aggressive "Will You Join Us?" ad campaign asked regular folks to reduce their energy consumption, suggesting that Chevron was doing the same. In actuality, the company spent less than 3 percent of its whopping capital and exploratory expenditures on alternative energy. And it has refused to offer better reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions, despite strong shareholder support for it. (The aggressive, and misleading, ad campaign seems to have ired the report's researchers as well: The report is decorated by numerous parodies, and some have been wheat-pasted around town.)

It's a very well researched report, written by the scholar Antonia Juhasz, clearly divided into regional issues, and it's a much needed counterbalance to the friendly coverage Chevron is otherwise getting. (Juhasz was interviewed on Democracy Now this morning.)

For information on protesting the shareholder meeting early tomorrow morning, click here.

Not Quite Beyond Petroleum

Posted by Philip Mattera on February 20th, 2009

For the past eight years, the oil giant formerly known as British Petroleum has tried to convince the world that its initials stand for “Beyond Petroleum.” An announcement just issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may suggest that the real meaning of BP is Brazen Polluter.

The EPA revealed that BP Products North America will pay nearly $180 million to settle charges that it has failed to comply with a 2001 consent decree under which it was supposed to implement strict controls on benzene and benzene-tainted waste generated by the company’s vast oil refining complex in Texas City, Texas, located south of Houston.  Since the 1920s, benzene has been known to cause cancer.

Among BP’s self-proclaimed corporate values is to be “environmentally responsible with the aspiration of ‘no damage to the environment’” and to ensure that “no one is subject to unnecessary risk while working for the group.” Somehow, that message did not seem to make its way to BP’s operation in Texas City, which has a dismal performance record.

The benzene problem in Texas City was supposed to be addressed as part of the $650 million agreement BP reached in January 2001 with the EPA and the Justice Department covering eight refineries around the country. Yet environmental officials in Texas later found that benzene emissions at the plant remained high. BP refused to accept that finding and tried to stonewall the state, which later imposed a fine of $225,000.

In March 2005 a huge explosion (photo) at the refinery killed 15 workers and injured more than 170. The blast blew a hole in a benzene storage tank, contaminating the air so seriously that safety investigators could not enter the site for a week after the incident.

BP was later cited for egregious safety violations and paid a record fine of $21.4 million. Subsequently, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former secretary of state James Baker III found that BP had failed to spend enough money on safety and failed to take other steps that could have prevented the disaster in Texas City. Still later, the company paid a $50 million fine as part of a plea agreement on related criminal charges.

In an apparent effort to repair its image, BP has tried to associate itself with positive environmental initiatives. The company was, for instance, one of the primary sponsors of the big Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference held in Washington earlier this month. Yet as long as BP operates dirty facilities such as the Texas City refinery, the company’s sunburst logo, its purported earth-friendly values and its claim of going beyond petroleum will be nothing more than blatant greenwashing.

Originally posted at:

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/327

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

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

Posted by Philip Mattera on August 1st, 2008

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 finds 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. 

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/148

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Wal-Mart and the Chinese Earthquake: Cheap Help for A Cheap-Labor Country

Posted by Philip Mattera on May 19th, 2008

 

Wal-Mart Stores has put out a press release patting itself on the back for promising the equivalent of about $430,000 for disaster relief and reconstruction for the area of China hit by a massive earthquake this week. The gesture was laudable but the amount was less than impressive.

After all, the giant retailer would be nowhere today without the countless Chinese workers who toil in sweatshops so that American consumers can be offered the cheap goods that are at the core of the company’s business model. Last year those largely Chinese-made goods brought Wal-Mart profits of $12.7 billion, or about $1.4 million every hour of every day. The $430,000 contribution thus represents less than 20 minutes of profit.

Wal-Mart also profits from Chinese consumers. The company operates more than 200 stores in China (through joint ventures and minority-owned subsidiaries), several of which have been shut down because of the tremblor. Wal-Mart was so eager to operate stores in China that it agreed to let its employees there be represented by unions (though of the government-dominated variety).

Wal-Mart has a history of using relatively inexpensive amounts of disaster relief to boost its reputation. After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, Wal-Mart maneuvered to get maximum exposure for its prompt delivery of relief supplies. A fairly routine operation for a company possessing the most advanced logistics infrastructure was seen as nearly miraculous, given the ineptitude of federal and state public officials.

The company made an initial faux pas (quickly reversed) in announcing that employees at its stores shut down by the storm would be paid for only three days. It also started out offering a measly $2 million in relief but soon overcame its parsimonious instincts and upped the figure by $15 million, thereby winning wide praise. The wave of favorable coverage went on for several months, thanks at least in part to the efforts of its army of p.r. operatives from Edelman and a conservative blogger who was paid to tout Wal-Mart’s hurricane work in the blogosphere.

Wal-Mart may have to part with more than $430,000 to get a similar public relations bonanza from China’s suffering.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/51

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007


This week's CorpWatch feature
highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?

Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"There is not sufficient disclosure in an understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in Mali."


The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.

While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.


Mining in the U.S.

In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Funny, That Wasn't in the Manual

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 17th, 2006

The least they could do is improve the healthcare coverage, then:

ST-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, QUE. — Managers at a local Wal-Mart forced employees to search the store after it received a bomb threat, Radio-Canada reported Monday.

Some 40 nervous employees searched the store for an hour last Thursday, said Mailie Fournier, a former employee of the store. They were accompanied by six police officers.

Several employees, whose jobs don't include security, found the experience traumatic, said Mr. Fournier.

The incident prompted Quebec workplace health and safety board to investigate.

Wal-Mart said it simply wanted to help police conduct the search.

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.

Pentagon Attacks Labor Trafficking by US Contractors

Posted by David Phinney on April 24th, 2006

It has been long in coming. The Pentagon is now demanding that contractors fight labor trafficking and lousy working conditions in Iraq endured by tens of thousands of low-paid south Asians working under US-funded contracts in Iraq.

In an April 19 memorandum to all Pentagon contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joint Contracting Command demands that the widespread practice of taking away workers passports come to end. Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately "cease and deist."

"All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this theater."

Contractors and subcontractors routinely hold workers passports -- in direct violation of US labor trafficking laws -- to prevent them from changing employers or leave wartorn Iraq.

As many as 35,000 low-paid workers are employed under Halliburton's sweeping, multibillion logistics contract serving the US military. Many of these workers are brought to Iraq by subcontractors from neighboring Arab countries -- countries that have been frequently cited by the US State Department for the exploitation of foreign workers.

A new April 4 contracting directive (I know the PDF is upside down!) also officially confirms the dirty little secret that reporters, military people and contractors have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: Employers routinely have been exploiting many of the tens of thousands of south Asian workers working under US contracts.

The directive notes that inspections of Defense contractors in Iraq has revealed deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees that indebt workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures.

These conditions, endured by south Asian workers sometimes making only dollars a day, are all chronicled in my October story, Blood, Sweat & Tears: Asia's Poor Build U.S. Bases in Iraq.

One contractor that has been accused of coercing employees to work in Iraq against their will is now the prime contractor tasked with building new $592-million US embassy project in Baghdad.

The April military directive announces that contractors will be required to take part in new education and awareness programs, policy enforcement and inspections by Joint Contracting Command's Inspector General in the coming months for compliance.

 

Wal-Mart Waltons Get All Cultural

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 23rd, 2006

Here's a story that will make your blood boil: The Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, are planning a huge art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. There's nothing wrong with a little culture in the Midwest, right?

Except when you consider how much they are spending on their little hobby, while resisting spending a fraction as much to simply pay their employees a living wage.

Rebecca Solnit's article on the subject will enrage you. She discusses a single painting the family recently bought for $35 million:

The average Wal-Mart cashier makes $7.92 an hour and, since Wal Mart likes to keep people on less than full-time schedules, works only 29 hours a week for an annual income of $11,948--so a Wal-Mart cashier would have to work a little under 3,000 years to earn the price of the painting without taking any salary out for food, housing, or other expenses.

Read the article at Alternet.

Bush Defends Mining Record

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 23rd, 2006

From Reuters:

The Bush administration on Monday defended the government's oversight of the Sago mine and said none of the previous safety problems cited at the West Virginia mine appeared to be the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.

That's sort of like an auto mechanic saying he forgot to tighten the bolts on a customer's car wheels after the tune-up, but the accident that killed him was a seat-belt issue. Just because the Bush administration never cited Sago for the safety issue that resulted in the tragedy doesn't mean it shouldn't have, or that the political coziness of the mining industry to the Bush camp might not have resulted in the oversight.

Not clear how this makes Bush look better: Yep, all of the citations we issued were obviously not as serious as the one we should have!