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A Dose of Corporate Reality

by Ray Grigg, Shades of Green, June 19, 2010

Look deeply into the oil-soaked waters of the Gulf of Mexico to get a clear insight into the corporate reality that entangles our economic system and threatens our environmental security.

This is precisely what the media has been doing in response to the ecological catastrophe precipitated by the explosion and sinking of BP's Deep Water Horizon. As massive amounts of escaped oil kills sea life, contaminates hundreds of kilometres of Gulf Coast marshes, and stains white sandy beaches, commentators are discovering more than just the sticky muck we call crude. "Slick Operator", an article in Newsweek magazine (May 17/10), is a good place to begin.

Newsweek notes that BP spent $15.9 million in 2009 lobbying the US government and politicians "to dilute new laws on the prevention of oil-spill pollution". If the past is prelude to the future, BP is making a smart investment by gaining friends in high places. So, if BP is lucky, its pledge to "honor all legitimate claims" arising from the blowout could sink into the obscure waters of legal technicalities and transferred blame. Consider recent history.

In 2005, a blast and fire at BP's Texas City refinery killed 15 workers, injured 180 others and sent 143,000 fleeing for safety. An investigating board found BP wholly responsible, the result of "repeated cost cutting that affected maintenance and safety." Further investigations were halted by "top officials of the Justice Department".

In 2006, two massive oil leaks from BP's pipelines in Alaska ‹ one of 800,000 litres ‹ were attributed to corrosion that the corporation had been repeatedly warned about but repeatedly neglected. Said Scott West, in charge of the probe for the US Environmental Protection Agency, "There was a corporate philosophy that it was cheaper to operate to failure and then deal with the problem later rather than do preventative maintenance." When BP finally supplied its subpoenaed records, the four EPA investigators found themselves inundated with 62 million scanned pages of documents, essentially eliminating any possibility of finding incriminating data.

A related tactic was used by the Exxon Corporation in dealing with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, also in Alaska. Years of legal appeals and wrangling over technicalities by Exxon slowed the justice system to a crawl, stalled payments until 2008 and eventually reduced punitive damages from $5 billion to $507 million. Regardless of the final court decisions, Exxon effectively won.

The strategies used by most corporations are similar: deny, delay, obfuscate, and leverage as much political support as money can legitimately buy. Consider the multi-national salmon farming corporations operating in BC's West Coast.

Critics of the industry recently discovered that in 1995 salmon farms refused to treat serious sea lice infestations in their net-pens when they learned that the intended use of two unregistered toxic chemicals (pyrethrin and hydrogen peroxide) would be made public. Wrote Dan Peterson of MELP (Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks), "I guess they were either afraid of their shareholders finding out they [had] sick fish or of the public finding out they were discharging chemicals into the environment."

Another member of MELP's staff, Earl Warnock, condemned both the industry and MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries) for colluding in a cover-up of the incident ‹ MELP and MAFF had a protocol that the two ministries would share such information so they could better monitor and control outbreaks. "I find it unconscionable that [fish farmers] are only prepared to undertake measures appropriate to protection their stock health and the environment [if] they can do it in a clandestine manner. Frankly, I can think of no other way to describe this than to say it stinks, and for them or MAFF to ask us to operate with them in this way says something about the people we are dealing with. If the truth harms their integrity perhaps they need to look at themselves. This message applies to MAFF equally as presumably they supported the cover-up approach."

In defense of the industry, Mary Ellen Walling, said that, "A suggested incident without full context from nearly 15 years ago is certainly not representative of how our industry operates today." But the corporate priority of earning profits for its shareholders remains unchanged, and the "incident" is not "suggested", it is documented. And, despite feigned openness, the industry's secrecy continues today "even though they operate in public waters" (Alexandra Morton, Courier-Islander, June 4/10). Furthermore, Walling's high claim that "diligent attention by the public has made this industry an accountable, well-managed benefit to the province" is tacit admission that only vigorous scrutiny and pressure by concerned citizens has forced a modicum of environmental responsibility on the industry. Since their arrival on BC West Coast, the salmon farming corporations have assiduously resisted any form of disclosure, transparency, culpability or responsibility for their damage to marine ecologies ‹ with likely collusion from governments. This has also been the history of BP's corporate practices.

Anyone with a recollection of local environmental history will recall similarly long and arduous struggles to get a pulp mill to reduce its emissions of pollutants, a forest industry to log responsibly, and a mining company to contain its toxic wastes. If corporations show any sign of altruism, the motivation is either self-interest or public pressure ‹ aided by a symbiotic relationship with a government.

In the case of BP and the US government, the corporation is the primary supplier of oil to America's military. In the case of BC's salmon farming corporations, they are fulfilling a government agenda to provide jobs for coastal communities impoverished by the collapse of commercial fishing brought about, in large measure, by the lax environmental regulations supporting the corporate forest and mining industries. Think of the entire process as a succession of ecological failures each contributing to the eventual wholesale failure of everything.


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