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Molly Ivins April 6


AUSTIN, Texas — Our friends at INFACT, the corporate accountability folks up in Boston who do such good work, have just sent out their 1998 updates on the worst corporations in America.

They had a number of repeats from their Hall of Shame a year ago, including Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, Dow Chemical and Columbia/HCA Healthcare. These are big-league bad guys — jaw-dropping, teeth-rattling, up-front, no-shame, way-out-there bad guys.

I think the '98 Chutzpah Award probably goes to Frank Popoff, chairman of Dow Chemical, who actually said: "This is a nation born over 200 years ago. It only works when business dialogues with government. ... Items so important as peace are not always negotiated by governments." Here's an outfit we want in charge of peace.

Dow now defines itself as "a global science and technology company that dedicates its resources to improving the quality of life for all." Dow's '98 ad campaign, "What Good Thinking Can Do for You," featured a full-page magazine ad of a picture of Earth with a banner slapped over it that read, "New and Improved." The copy said that thanks to Dow's good thinking, "tomorrow you can wake up to a world that's a little bit better than it was today."

Dow is the No. 1 producer of chlorine in the world and a major source of dioxin. Chlorine has been linked to a variety of cancers, including breast cancer, plus immune and reproductive problems. Dow is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as the potentially responsible party in 45 Superfund toxic-waste sites. Greenpeace named Dow its Polluter of the Century in 1997, figuring that nobody worse could show up in the next three years.

Dow has certainly improved the quality of life for many politicians, and it is a major player in opposing restrictions on the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming. With an impressive disregard for scientific opinion, the company leads the industry front group that so gaily dismisses scientific opinion on the subject and that led the charge against the U.N. Climate Treaty.

But while Dow still ranks on INFACT's Hall of Shame list, it has been replaced as my favorite by a fabulous contender: Waste Management. Wow, what an outfit.

Any company can pollute; pollution is practically nothing these days. Any company can buy Congress; public policy's been for sale for some time. Most companies justify such behavior by claiming that they have to maximize profits for their shareholders.

But the Waste Management folks are also accused of cheating their shareholders! Such a fun bunch.

What an exciting time they've had: four CEOs in two years; an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission; a pattern of questionable business practices and faulty accounting that forced the company to restate its earnings going back to 1992; and class-action lawsuits by shareholders charging fraud. Whee!

According to INFACT, Waste Management has 89 Superfund toxic sites and reported spending more than $1 million to lobby Congress in '97. (That's not counting campaign contributions.) As CEO Robert S. Miller told the Waste Management annual meeting in July 1998, "No corporation in America in their right mind would withdraw from the political process."

Here's just one example of WM's fine performance record as found by INFACT: "In Massachusetts, 23 communities pay twice the state average to dispose of their trash in an incinerator owned by Waste Management's subsidiary Wheelabrator. In January 1998, the state inspector general found that Wheelabrator and state officials had aggressively marketed a 20-year waste-disposal contract to the communities, promising them that they would make income off the incinerator and downplaying financial risks.

"The IG also concluded that Wheelabrator plant officials may have manipulated test results to cover up flaws at the plant, including the fact that the plant's capacity is less than it had promised the communities. The test results had earned the corporation a $10-million bonus at the time. Wheelabrator blocked access to documents relating to the plant and its capacity, and the state took Wheelabrator to court. A superior court ruled that Wheelabrator must share the cost for retrofits to the incinerator, an expense it tried to pass on to the communities and taxpayers. Health threats posed by the incinerator include the emission of mercury and dioxin. Wheelabrator's contract will not be renewed: It ends in 2005."

WM claims that it is "totally committed to complete compliance with all laws and regulations governing our operation," but it paid $671,865 in environmental fines in '96 (latest figures not available), and from January 1997 to mid-1998, the company racked up more than 152 federal health and safety violations and more than $100,000 in OSHA fines. Just a cost of doing business.

Here's an idea: When companies like Dow and General Electric put eco-porn on television or in magazines (all those beautiful ads telling us what wonderful companies they are), let's make them tell us how many environmental and safety violations they have for the past year. Like the warning on cigarette packages — just a small-print deal.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



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