THREE COMPANIES SAY 'OOPS' IN DIFFERENT WAYS
Three stories have hit the news lately concerning three corporations
done -- or may have done -- serious environmental harm. They are coping with
the situation in very different ways. Taken together, the stories
odd combination of hope and cynicism. There are signs of honesty, good will,
real learning. But the damage is great, and the learning is slow.
Story Number One is the latest development in a decades-long saga involving
General Electric. In the 1940s two GE capacitor plants in Hudson Falls
Edward, New York, started using the new chemicals called PCBs and
lavishly into the Hudson River. Thirty years later the nation adopted a Clean
Water Act, and PCBs were found to be bad news. They last almost forever
environment, they concentrate in animal and human tissue, they are
cancer and reproductive failure.
By the time PCBs had been fully indicted, millions of pounds of them had sunk
into the mud of the Hudson for 200 miles downstream from the GE plants. There
followed a 25 year battle about how the river should be cleaned up and who
should pay for it. GE fought in the way we have unfortunately come to expect
from corporations. Denial, obfuscation, leaning upon politicians, threatening
to pull 55,000 jobs out of the state if the company were held liable.
Now the EPA has ordered PCB-laced mud to be dredged out of the Hudson at
to GE of a billion or so dollars. GE is objecting, saying the river has safely
covered over the contaminated sediment. The company has a point. Disturbing
the mud could churn up more damage than leaving it. Once dredged it
have to be put somewhere. But EPA has a point too. A storm or flood
up old sediment, and meanwhile it slowly percolates down to the sea.
The problem for GE is that, though it may or may not be credible now,
behavior has destroyed its credibility in this matter. Negative
last a long time.
So here's a better story. On May 11 William C. Ford, chairman of the
Company (and great-grandson of founder Henry Ford) told his stockholders that
sports utility vehicles are gross polluters and dangerous on the road.
course, makes the biggest road hog of all, the Excursion, which weighs
much as a Grand Cherokee and gets 10 miles to the gallon. SUVs, said
three times more likely than regular cars to kill occupants of other
cars in a
crash. And their own occupants are not safe either. Death rates in
SUVs are as
high as in cars, because SUVs tend to roll over and to crumple.
Breathtaking confession. Maybe the era of corporate denial is passing. Indeed
Ford warned that if car companies don't fix the problems of SUVs, their
reputation might some day fall to the level of tobacco companies.
He talked of fixing the vans, however, making them safer and more
fuel-efficient, not ceasing to make them. Honesty, yes; sacrifice of
public safety, not yet. But in the third story a company goes one step further
phasing out a problem product by its own decision.
The company is 3M, which prides itself on its environmental record. The
questionable product is an organic fluorine compound of many uses. Most
use it to repel stains and call it Scotchgard. Three years ago the
doing a routine blood test of its workers, part of its ongoing concern for
workers' health. For comparison with people who do not work in a chemical
factory, it also tested blood from a commercial blood bank.
It found tiny amounts of Scotchgard in the general public's blood. Utterly
surprised, the company looked further and found its trademark
people and wildlife all over the globe. The only place it wasn't found
the stored blood of Korean War soldiers -- samples taken before
Another immortal manmade chemical. But does it do harm? There was no evidence
of any, until 3M fed huge doses to rats and monkeys. The monkeys had
convulsions. The rats' offspring all died.
The company informed the EPA promptly of these findings. Then, after
soul-searching, it announced that it will stop making Scotchgard by the
this year. That means a loss of $500 million in annual sales -- about three
percent of total revenues -- and a threat to jobs in three factories.
It was a
decision that EPA may have forced at some point. The company might have been
able to fight it off, but its voluntary phaseout saved everyone years of
struggle and expense.
William Ford has received praise for his honesty, and 3M even more
its phaseout. Katherine E. Reed, 3M's director of environmental
a standard for all companies by saying, "We believe that our
materials continues into disposal. It's a concept we call life-cycle
It's wonderful to hear even one company say that. We would hope to hear
Meanwhile, PCBs sit in the Hudson, SUVs assault our lungs, our climate
safety, and molecules of stain repellent circulate through our veins. Negative
legacies can last a long time.
(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.)