Brian McKenna, Counterpunch, November 20, 2008
“I’m surprised if anybody is surprised by this,” said an outraged Rahm Emanuel, President-Elect Obama’s new Chief of Staff. “This [Bush] administration, from day one, has always chosen polluters over the environment,” he told the Chicago Tribune last May. The event he was fuming over was indeed deplorable – the firing of Mary Gade, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwestern official.
In 2007 Gade used emergency powers to force Dow Chemical to clean up four areas contaminated with the dioxin, one of the world’s most toxic and deadly chemical compounds. Dioxin is highly carcinogenic and considered by some scientists to be the most toxic substance known. Even at the most minute levels dioxin damages the immune system: there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin. One of the areas, a park along the Tittabawasse River downstream from Midland, Michigan, Dow’s headquarters, recorded dioxin at 1.6 million parts per trillion, the highest amount ever found in the U.S.
A year later Gade, a former corporate lawyer and Bush appointee, was stripped of her powers and told to quit or be fired by June 1, 2008. She resigned. “There is no question that this is about Dow,” she told the Tribune. “I stand behind what I did and what my staff did. I’m proud of what we did.”
Gade was a hope for Michigan’s environmentalists, led by the Lone Tree Council, who are seeking redress for a quarter-century-decade-long dioxin scandal against the most powerful chemical company in the U.S. Some were indeed surprised by the foul treatment of Gade, a federal official. Michigan activists are more used to that happening in their own homelands where Dow rules like a colonial power. Dow showers tens of millions on Michigan’s politicians, communities, universities, public health departments and media (including PBS) to chill debate, suppress critics and garner the best public relations about its activities. (See Dow Chemical Buys Silence in Michigan, April 18, 2005 in CounterPunch)
A Chlorine Cloud of Terror
Dow Chemical’s resistance to federal Department of Homeland Security guidelines is equally outrageous. President-elect Obama enters an arena where there are 7,000 high risk U.S. chemical facilities. They store or use highly toxic volatile chemicals like chlorine, sulfur dioxide and anhydrous ammonia. If airborne these agents could form a toxic cloud killing or injuring up to a million people in places like New Jersey. People would asphyxiate and die painful deaths. According to risk models from the DHS, an accident or terrorist act at just one plant could result in as much as $100 billion in economic damage. Simple, inexpensive regulations requiring corporations to substitute relatively harmless agents for the dangerous ones could prevent this scenario.
According to the EPA just four toxic-by-inhalation gases account for 55 percent of all chemical processes that threaten communities nationwide. These are: anhydrous ammonia (32.5%, 8,343 processes), chlorine (18.3%, 4,682 processes), sulfur dioxide (3%, 768 processes) and hydrogen fluoride (1.2%, 315 processes). These can be transformed into chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
High risk water facilities that rely on chlorine gas are also a significant danger. Legislation has been introduced (but stalled) that would require safer precautionary alternatives include liquid bleach, ozone and ultraviolet light.
Dow Chemical, DuPont and the industry at large have spent millions to effectively lobby Congress and the President to stop them from invoking safer measures. Chlorine is one of the backbones of the Dow Chemical Empire and the firm does not want to be told that they cannot use it as they see fit. Dow argues that its their own security measures (e.g. cordoning off high risk tanks and conducting background checks on employees) are effective enough deterrents.
To date Congress has only passed an interim law, in 2006, that actually removes power from the Department of Homeland Security. You heard it right. The chemical industry succeeded in using one branch of the federal government to stop the other, more aggressive one. The law prohibits the federal government from requiring companies to take the most important step: replacing dangerous chemicals and processes with inherently safer ones. Even the New York Times has editorialized against it, castigating members of Congress who “have been more worried about currying favor with the chemical industry, a major campaign donor, than with safeguarding their constituents from this serious threat.”
The Dow Lobby
In 2006 Senators Obama and Biden supported alternative legislation, the “Chemical Security and Safety Act” (S. 2486), introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would, among other things, require the industry to adopt inherently safer technology, permit state authority to be protected when its safeguards were stronger than the federal government and offer stronger protections for whistleblowers. It has gone nowhere.
During the Presidential campaign season momentum, for chemical change has heated up. The bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America gave the Bush Administration a “C” for its efforts to prevent nuclear terrorist, chemical terrorism and biological terrorism. In its September 2008 report they asserted that a major terrorist attack on the U.S. is “still very real,” and the country is “still dangerously vulnerable.”
In October, thirty environmental, labor and government groups began a counter lobbying effort to push Congress to establish far tougher chemical factory security regulations. These groups include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Steelworkers, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. On October 10th they sent a letter to all members of Congress citing its “unfinished business.” The letter said, “US chemical plants remain one of the sectors of America’s infrastructure most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. . .however the failure of the 110th Congress to replace the flawed temporary law with a comprehensive chemical security statute continues to leave millions of Americans in danger of unnecessary risk.”
The interim law is set to expire on October 4, 2009. Dow Chemical, DuPont and the industry are ferociously working behind the scenes to make this interim law permanent.
Obama and Biden rarely addressed this issue on the campaign trail.
Is Obama Courting Dow’s CEO for Energy Secretary?
As is clear when it comes to questions of homeland security, Dow endangers or destroys environmental health on two levels: chronically, via the steady toxic invasion of land and blood (like dioxin, air pollution, pesticides) or through the risk of a dramatic “pulse” event like an accident, explosion or act of terrorism.
How will an Obama Presidency respond to Dow? Will it be prepared to contest a powerful corporation that flaunts its disobedience to federal homeland security guidelines to such a degree that it is one of the weakest links in preventing another catastrophic 911?
Early indications are disconcerting. According to the Saginaw News of November 12, Dow’s CEO Andrew Liveris is being considered for the Energy Secretary Post. So widespread were reports (trial balloons?) of this prospective appointment that Liveris released a statement last week: saying “While it is certainly an honor for me to be mentioned in some reports about this incredibly important leadership role, my focus is on leading the Dow Chemical Company and making our company competitive in this ever-changing and extremely challenging global economic environment.”
Such a choice might seem a surprise when considering Dow Chemical’s multiple public health assaults, risks and destructions. Why reward such an entity? The answer seems clear when considering Liveris’s ideological views on energy, and his growing celebrity status in the corporate world. Like Obama, Liveris strongly supports nuclear power, offshore drilling and “clean coal.” He is also an advocate for increasing efficiencies through alternative energy sources (Dow manufactures solar roofing shingles and wind turbine blades).
New Industrial Policy: U.S. To Pay for Dow’s Oil?
Lower its Tax Rate?
But there’s more. In a revealing interview in USA Today (August 17, 2008) Liveris cautioned that without US federal support to protect profit margins the chemical industry will be forced to move factories and jobs overseas. “Frankly, when free markets prevail, we have to shut down factories and replace them overseas in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Russia, Brazil, Thailand, China and Oman, where governments lock in energy availability, guarantee prices and de-risk our investment. The chemical industry is down 120,000 jobs in the USA in the last five years. Manufacturing as a whole is down 3 million jobs. Dow is investing $40 billion to $50 billion in the next five to seven years. A lot of that is already in flight to countries where governments work with us through their national oil companies. In Brazil, it’s through a company that converts sugar cane into ethanol, a much better energy converter than corn.”
“So we lose jobs unless the government subsidizes your energy costs?” Liveris was asked.
“It’s common in many countries to regulate the price of energy inputs to spur economic downstream investment. It’s saying that energy is a national resource. You can burn it or add value to it. For every $1 Dow Chemical uses in oil or gas, we generate $20 of GDP. You need to give certainty to those making large capital investments. Not just chemicals but steel, paper, metals, even cars. That’s how other countries are building industries,” he replied.
Instead of responding to homeland security demands to use safer chemicals and technologies – which would cost relatively little – Dow Chemical is going on a buying binge. After a recent merger with an $11 billion Kuwaiti petrochemical company, Dow flaunted its power by purchasing Philadelphia’s chemical giant Rohm and Haas for $15 billion this summer. By orchestrating this massive concentration and centralization of chemistry capital, Liveris is in better position to garner influence. That, and the fact that Liveris is going on a Pied Piper campaign for a new “energy policy” and gasp, “industrial policy” for the U.S.
In September Liveris announced to the Detroit Economic Club that Dow Chemical and Ford Motor Co. will co-chair a National Summit on energy and industrial policy next June 2009 at Ford Field. Molded after the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which Liveris attended, some 5,000 business, political and academic leaders are expected to attend this conference. . Liveris titled the Detroit speech “Working Towards a (New) U.S. Industrial Policy.” One of its chief planks: lowering the corporate tax rate.
Dow’s Industrial Legacy: Fines, Cover-Ups and 9/11s
How much authority should Dow Chemical be granted over national industrial policy when it brazenly causes case after case of industrial pollution, news of which arrives at such a rapid fire clip to require constant monitoring by groups like the Dow Accountability Network?
In February 2008 the Center for Public Integrity published a censored government report that revealed that Great Lakes Chemical pollution affects up to 9 million people in the region, including cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee. The 400 page leaked study was called, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Elevated rates of infant mortality and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer and lung cancer are said to be related to toxic stews of dioxin, PCBs, lead, mercury and six other hazardous pollutants. The report was commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s top public health agency at the request of the International Joint Commission, a joint U.S./Canada body. The report has been reviewed and re-reviewed since 2004 and even though there were a few legitimate issues about its content, after its completion in 2007, it was suppressed for 7 months.
In June 2008 Dow was ordered, along with Boeing, to pay 12,000 Colorado homeowners $925 million for contaminating their properties with plutonium waste that leaked from their Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons factory.
In August 2008 Dow indicated that it is preparing to sue Canada over Quebec’s province-wide ban on the residential use of weed-killing chemicals. Dow argues that NAFTA offers legal protections for U.S. investors against this ban.
A fascinating look at the corporate culture of Dow Chemical was reported by journalist Marla Cone in the Los Angeles Times (9/19/08). In 2006 twelve of the largest chemical companies including Dow, BASF, DuPont and Rohm and Haas (now owned by Dow) hired consultants to explore ways to help make the chemical industry more environmentally friendly. The consultants concluded, after a year of research, that the industry was “fiercely defensive” with a “bunker mentality” that was impeding progress. They said that Dow’s environmental initiatives were “reactive not proactive.” The report was published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
Dow’s reactive nature is evident when we one considers its current resistance to federal Homeland Security mandates which risk another 9/11. But it is made even clearer when one adopts an anthropological perspective to reveal how Dow Chemical has already been a party to two other events that parallel 9/11.
Two other parallel 9/11s? Yes, if we define “a 9/11” as a cataclysmic event that results in immediate wholesale killing, terror, and destruction of a homeland and its people. And if, to boot, it took place on September 11th.
Dow’s First Involvement in an Event that Paralleled 9/11
The first 9/11 involved a man who, like Obama, was a community organizer who was elected a senator in his country. Appalled at the widespread injustice he witnessed, he decided to run for President. Although a long shot he won. Salvador Allende was the first democratically elected Marxist President. It was Chile in 1970.
Allende began a series of reforms to benefit Chile’s workers and peasants. As part of this effort he nationalized some US companies like Anaconda (involved in copper extraction) and Dow Chemical. As a result many U.S. companies including Dow formed a Chile Ad Hoc Committee. It was dedicated to working with the U.S. government in “handling the Chile problem.” Dow Chemical joined others in a destabilization campaign that included delayed payments, office closings and credit denial. Three years later Chile’s General Pinochet, with the support of the US government, toppled Allende killing about 3,000 people in the immediate aftermath.
The date of the coup? September 11, 1973.
Dow was the first company to receive a phone call from Pinochet’s military asking it to come back, which Dow readily accepted (a Dow official later saluting the economic “miracle” of Pinochet), according to E.N. Brandt, a 40 year public relations man at Dow who made this observation in his official history of the corporation titled, Growth Company, DOW Chemical’s First Century (1997).
Dow’s Second Involvement in an Event that Paralleled 9/11
On February 6, 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide dramatically improving its market share and becoming the country’s second largest chemical company at that time. But Dow also assumed liability the worst industrial accident of all time, even though it argued that the terms of the acquisition protected it. The accident took place in Bhopal India on December 3, 1984. Just after midnight, 40 tons of poisonous substances leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant there exposing a half million people to the gases, which hung over the city for hours. It remains the worst industrial accident of all time, with an estimated 7,000 deaths and 190,000 injuries the first few days and over 15,000 claims of deaths to date. Given the death counts, the prolonged agony, and the persistent callous treatment of its victims, the Union Carbide disaster is worse than the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Dow Chemical has been the object of an international campaign against it for eight years now. Legally Dow was sued as early as November 2001 when a U.S. federal judge upheld 7 of the 15 complaints by Bhopal plaintiffs. It seems incredible, but true, that nearly 5,000 death claims have yet to be compensated, and the 10,237 claims that were paid averaged just $3,000 per life. Union Carbide did not clean up its site after the explosion; nor has Dow Chemical.
The site still contains about 8,000 tons of carcinogenic chemicals, but the cleanup has been blocked by court battles and debates over corporate responsibility. Dow argues that India should clean it up. But the Indian government argues in court that Dow should pay about $25 million to clean up the site.
Dow is not in the clear by any means. In February 2008 India’s Chemical Ministry delivered an unexpected blow to Dow arguing, “If there is any legal liability [for Bhopal], it would have to be borne by Dow Chemical.” The Ministry argued that unless remediative action is taken, some of Dow’s investments in India could be at risk. And, on another front, just this past November 3rd, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York reinstated a lawsuit which contends that thousands of people in India were exposed to polluted drinking water after the 1984 Union Carbide toxic-gas disaster in Bhopal. The Court said that a lower court improperly threw out the case and sent the lawsuit back to a Manhattan federal court judge for further proceedings.
Summary Advice for Obama (no Illusions)
Dow Chemical, like the failed bankers of Wall Street, acts like a drug addict in its quest for profits. The company admits as much. “Growth [is] the opiate we’re all hooked on. . .” said Frank Popoff, former CEO of DOW Chemical in Growth Company, DOW Chemical’s First Century. Indeed, Dow seems to view anyone who challenges its growth manifesto as a terrorist. Keith McKennon, DOW research director from 1985-1990 told a writer that “During that period Dow transmogrified from the company that sets up antiaircraft guns to shoot down EPA flyover planes to the company that exists today.” The flyover planes were employed by the EPA to collect air samples because Dow would not permit the EPA to enter its premises. McKennon doesn’t say if he’s kidding or not about the guns.
If Rahm Emanuel, the new Chief of Staff, was indeed outraged at the Bush Administration’s firing of the EPA’s Mary Gade, then one of Obama’s first acts as President should be to rehire her. Then the President should orchestrate a Midwest summit on environmental health pollution, using the suppressed CDC report as a blueprint. Michigan’s Michelle Hurd Riddick, a nurse and leader of the Lone Tree Council should be invited as a keynote speaker.
The President should next resuscitate his “Chemical Security and Safety Act” (S. 2486) of 2006 and conjoin that with the calls of the Kean Commission as well as labor and environmental groups calling for: safer and more secure chemicals and processes, including all categories of facilities in this coverage such as water treatment plants, allow states to set more protective security standards if they so wish, require collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security, the EPA and other agencies to circumvent regulatory redundancy, and dramatically protect the rights of industry whistleblowers.
Regarding whistleblower protection, Jeff Ruch should be considered to head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ruch is head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and has done a remarkable job over the past decade in monitoring the federal government’s environmental crimes and misdemeanors all while fighting to protect government whistleblowers. As Ruch told E Magazine recently, “If you brought in somebody that believed in the mission and surrounded himself with others that believed in the mission, it would be like water in the desert. The desert flowers would bloom.” Ruch is such a man.
I recommend epidemiologists Dr. Devra Davis and Dr. Ruth Etzel, M.D. as candidates for the Centers for Disease Control. Davis is the award winning author of the Secret History of the War on Cancer (2007). Etzel is the writer of the groundbreaking “Green Book” of Pediatric Environmental Health (2004) that informs busy clinicians about environmental causes of maladies. Both have extensive government experience.
Both Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, two well-known educational scholars and activists, should be considered to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
Of course these appointments are merely tactics in an overarching strategy that is holistic and transformative.
Ecological Socialism: The Change we’re Looking For
In the fall the right wing spent a good deal of time castigating Presidential candidate Obama as a socialist or Marxist. Neither one is true. But the intended effect is to close off all debate on allegedly discredited forms of social analysis and practice. The ruling class is worried. Last weekend President Bush was busy reminding assembled world leaders that there is no need to throw out capitalism.
In fact, issues of socialism or barbarism rise to the fore at this historic time just as they did with the last Great Depression. And so we can be reminded that it was a chemical industry executive, Irenee DuPont, a former President of DuPont and a founder of the American Liberty League, who was involved in the alleged plot to overthrow FDR in the 1930s. Dow Chemical apparently took a pass on that one.
If one looks squarely at reality they would have to concur with anthropologist Laura Nader who writes with coauthor Ugo Mattei in their just released book, Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal (2008) that “Corporate control over political institutions, in the USA and abroad, is part of what we have described as plunder or what the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration regarded as fascism in 1938. As a result of these transformations, today, of the 200 strongest economies in the world, only 99 are states, the majority being politically unaccountable, profit-motivated global corporations.” (Mattei and Nader: 212)
One would have to adopt the anthropological perspective of her brother Ralph who famously asserted at an American Anthropology Association conference in 2001 that “anthropologists need not go to all Four Corners of the globe to deconstruct the ideologies of corporate power.” For example, he noted, “General Motors has more rights than most U.S. citizens. The most animistic, inorganic institution in the world is the modern corporation . . .it’s given the constitutional right to remain silent. He said that “studying up means getting behind those images.”
In this tradition, the writings of social theorist James O’Connor have never been more apropos. In his powerful and prescient book “Natural Causes, Essays in Ecological Marxism (Guilford Press: 1998) he argues that the dynamics of capital revolve around not one, but two central contradictions. The first involves the traditional understanding of the contradiction between capitalism’s productive forces and its productive relations. Capitalism’s relentless motions to accumulate and “grow” come up against the necessary contradictions of overproduction, underproduction, the proletarianization of labor and worker unrest. The second contradiction of capital addresses the ecological crises of our times. It arises from the way capital limits itself by impairing its own social and environmental conditions. O’Connor is tough on the traditional Marxists for undertheorizing the role of ecology. But he is equally tough on most (liberal) ecologists for not reading enough political economy and Marx.
Dow Chemical’s current drive to create a new social structure of accumulation, borne of monopolization, green efficiencies, capital flight threats, widespread pollution (external costs of production) and a move towards a more forceful role in “industrial policy,” with Dow as a principle beneficiary, confirm the theory.
The two contradictions of capitalism are on full display, if only one looks a little harder. One would hope that the Obama Administration takes this holistic, cross-cultural, and necessarily radical (or root) view of reality. The seeds are there. After all, Obama’s mother was an anthropologist.
Brian McKenna lives in Michigan.