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Multinationals Flout Environmental Safeguards

Monday, October 31, 2011

image Last month, Thomas DiNapoli, the Comptroller of the State of New York, wrote in the Huffington Post that “short term profits at the expense of environmental protection and human rights often cost companies more in the long term.”

He was not talking as an environmentalist, but as an investor, part of his job as a trustee of New York State’s $150 billion retirement fund, which holds nearly $780 million worth of Chevron stock. And it was Chevron’s depredations on the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador and the consequent suits by Ecuador’s indigenous people that had brought the Comptroller to denounce the company in such a public venue.

DiNapolito makes the case, and it is devastating: "The allegations against Chevron are well known. Starting in the 1960s, Texaco, which was subsequently acquired by Chevron,disposed of nearly 16 billion gallons of hazardous waste in the most indiscriminate ways — dumping pools of byproducts into unlined dirt pits, streams and rivers, thereby literally creating hundreds of real-life "sour lakes" of toxic effluent in the Amazon." The result is what amounts to an industrial cancer zone larger than the state of Rhode Island, centered around the town of Lago Agrio, where poisoned farmland and heavily polluted waterways create elevated rates of disease.

And then there was Bhopal

image When a flood of methyl isocyanate gas poured down on the city of Bhopal in India in 1984, killing about 3000 people immediately and many thousands more slowly, it came as a complete surprise to most of the world. At the time, we took in TV images of people grasping their throats as they choked when they were not mourning the dead, who were everywhere.We were horrified, and most of us rightly blamed Union Carbide, whose subsidiary had done the damage.

The immediate cause was a leak in a large tank of the gas that had been overfilled, and kept much warmer than the chill recommended temperature, saving money for the company. The main cause, however, was deliberate negligence by the company, which ran its plant according to the lax environmental, health and labor standards that still prevail in India.

In the U.S. there would have been a four-stage backup control system, instead of the one required in Bhopal. The vent gas scrubber that might have treated escaping gases with sodium hydroxide and brought the gas’ concentration down to a save level hadn’t worked for months and wasn’t likely to be inspected. The design of the plant itself, following government guidelines, was "Indianized" by company engineers to maximize the use of indigenous materials and products – many below Western standards for similar plants built in America and Europe.

Bhopal and Lago Agrio are symptoms of an increasingly serious world-wide problem: using a third-world country to produce goods without care for the indigenous peoples’ health or their environment. they can do this with impunity for many reasons. Multinationals have no allegiance other than to the demands of their corporate culture and those of their shareholders, which are measured entirely in income, profits and salaries. Such international laws as might be invoked to stop them are most held in abeyance by the power of multinational dollars over the political hierarchy of each country.

As recently as 1995, Shell was able to have the leaders of the Obiba uprising in Nigeria captured, tortured and executed – although they, and especially the leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa – were internationally respected. The fact that they had had led peaceful protests rather than engaging in violent actions was no deterrent to Shell’s desire to get them out of its way. As in many such situations, Shell provides the prime source of income for the country. As this source most often goes directly into the pockets of the country’s oligarchy, they were all too ready to use their police and their army to quell any opposition to the multinational’s maximizing of its operations.

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