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That’s Not My Job

Who’s Watching The Store

Just The Way Things Are

Corporations exist to make money.  That’s the way it is. Getting mad at a corporation engaged in pursuit of profit is like getting mad at a lion for eating a gazelle. It’s just what they do.We would like corporations to behave as better players in our society but I would also like people to be more courteous while they drive or more caring and polite. There are certain things we  need to learn to live with.  Corporate behavior is one of them. How we conduct the affairs of society in the face of what we know we can expect from business interests can make all the difference in the world.

Now corporate activity provides a lot of benefits. Manufacture of goods, jobs and economic activity are all vital to a functioning society. However, when the pursuit of corporate profit goes unfettered, all sorts of mayhem will ensue.  Finding an appropriate balance between allowing economic growth and the greater interests of society has always been a challenge. The history of the United States is filled with the ebb and flow of corporations exerting their power and eventually having to be reigned in.  We count on government as the arbiter of this give and take to provide a firewall against corporate excess.  Unfortunately our history is also rife with examples of undue corporate influence over the mechanisms of government to tip the balance in their favor. Wherever and whenever this has occurred, the results have inevitably been bad.

Protecting the environment is not the job or the goal of the corporation. We rely on the government to insure that the corporate pursuit of profit has limits. We trust that someone is standing guard to make sure that those whose only interest is making money don’t trample on anyone or anything that stands in their way. When the people whose job  it is to protect our resources or public health lose sight of that obligation or fail to fulfill that responsibility the results are predictable.  When our elected officials owe their allegiance to special interests, the people’s interests get lost. We must demand that those charged with keeping watch on our behalf remember what their job actually is.

Who Knew Something Like This Would Happen

coal-ash-spill

Dan River Coal Ash Spill

Sadly, we have several immediate examples of what will occur when we subvert the public good to the interests of corporations.  The consequences have been dire. On January 9, 2014 , approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol (MCHM) leaked from a storage tank on the banks of West Virginia’s Elk River. MCMH is a chemical used in processing coal to ready it for combustion. Very little is known about its health effects on humans, although studies of the family of chemicals it belongs to, naphthenic acids, have demonstrated both acute and chronic toxicity to fish and other organisms. The site of the spill was about 1 mile above the intake of the West Virginia American Water Company. This resulted in the contamination of the drinking water supply for over 300,000 people in the 9 county region surrounding the state capital of Charleston. One month later, the water still isn’t safe to drink or bathe in.  Freedom Industries, the owner of the facility that stored the chemical has filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in Eden NC, a broken pipe beneath a coal ash storage pond released around 80,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River. The pond was maintained (or not) by Duke Energy, the nation’s largest energy utility.  The ash, which can contain a mixture of toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium, has fouled a 6-mile long stretch of the river. The City of Danville, Virginia, which draws its drinking water from the waterway, has determined that it’s drinking water system can safely filter out the contaminants. However, miles of the Dan River have been fouled by the spill with long-term ecological damage being likely. Environmentalists and regulators had been warning for years that the 31 ash ponds maintained at Duke’s power plants in North Carolina were environmental disasters in the making.

will-power-asleep-at-the-switch

Asleep At The Switch

Both incidents were the result of a failure to maintain the facilities  involved-facilities that posed a serious threat to the public.Both Freedom Industries and Duke Energy waited a substantial period of time before reporting their respective accidents. Their interests weren’t public health or safety, they were self-protection.  Another common denominator was that the regulators, who were in charge of  protecting public health and safety, were notably absent in holding these corporations responsible for meeting their obligations to protect the environment prior to the incidents. The power and influence of the coal industry was a far bigger factor than safeguarding the public.

A Close Call

B.L. England Power Plant

At the same time, in NJ, a state not usually associated with the coal industry, an interesting power play (no pun intended) unfolded.  New Jersey utility, South Jersey Gas, sought to construct a gas transmission pipeline that would bring natural gas (derived from fracking in Pennsylvania) to an aging coal fired power plant known as the B.L.England Generating station. It was owned by a private equity group with ties to the Koch Brothers, Rockland Capital Energy Investments. Bringing gas to the plant would allow Rockland to convert the plant from coal to gas and presumably make a better return off of their investment in the power station. In fact, without the conversion, there is the distinct possibility that plant will have to be shut down. However, the pipeline would have to be routed through the environmentally sensitive Pinelands of southern New Jersey.

The Pinelands are protected by some of the nation’s strongest environmental regulations. A dedicated public body, the Pinelands Commission, is charged with planning and protecting the region. The path to approval of the pipeline went right through the Commission. The administration of Governor Chris Christie put tremendous pressure on the Commission to approve the pipeline. The ties between Christie and the project ran from having the Koch Brothers as the top donors to the Republican Governor’s Association and strong boosters of Christie as a presidential candidate, to close Christie ally David Samson’s law firm representing the power plant’s owners to a member of Christie’s senior staff being married to a top executive for South Jersey Gas. Rockland and South Jersey Gas are interested in making money.  Protection of the state and national environmental treasure of the Pinelands rests with the Commission and the state government. Despite strong-arm tactics from the administration and even the support of the Commission’s staff, the proposal failed-barely. In the end, the Pinelands Commission’s responsibility was to protect the Pinelands, not corporate profits.

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself- Mark Twain

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Protecting This-Not Corporate Profits

Remembering who has the job of protecting the public and protecting the environment is important. Corporations are quite capable of looking out for themselves. The people who are placed in positions that give them the responsibility of protection of valuable public trust resources should never forget that solemn charge. If they fail to fulfill that duty, nobody else is there to do it for them, or for us.  The twin fallacies that corporations can’t make a profit in a regulated world and that corporations can be trusted to “do the right thing” lead to a great deal of bad policy decisions. Poisoning the drinking water of a city in West Virginia, destroying a river in North Carolina or disrupting a sensitive eco-system in New Jersey, all because government priorities have been flipped upside down should be alarming outcomes to any thinking person. When it comes to our elected officials and the environment, we need to make certain that “not my job” is not in their vocabulary. – Ben Spinelli

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3 Comments

  1. David Peifer says:

    Well said: Government “counterweight” is getting pretty light in the US and more so in the developing world. Why should dangerous toxic chemicals be allowed to be stored along a water supply river just uptream of a potable water intake? Why is a storm drain pipe allowed to be installed under a fly-ash dump and why isn’t fly ash regulated as a toxic material. Just three of the questions that come to mind that could be addressed by planning and regulation. However, corporations are legal creatures of their country’s governments and their behavior as a license to operate, can and should be conditioned on the social good they provide, not their bottom line potential. Perhaps the corporate taxes charged should be on a sliding scale related to environmental impacts, carbon emissions etc. You want to act like a pig, its gonna cost ya.’, kinda like car insurance. Not all corporations are the same but it is very difficult to tell if they have sincere social motives or are just “green washing”, so adherence to appropriate rules and regulations is required.

  2. Ben Spinelli says:

    Thanks Dave. I wonder if the incident in West Virginia changed anybody’s mind in West Virginia about regulating the coal industry? The Pinelands example is most troubling to me. You get appointed to the Pinelands Commission to make sure the Pinelands are protected and the Pinelands Management Plan is adhered to, not to find a way to let some private equity group make a better return on their investment. The politics of the members can differ, but in the final analysis their job remains the same. It appears some of the members forgot their job.

  3. […] post, I came across an interesting item from the great state of Louisiana.   As a post-script to That’s Not My Job  I’d like to add another example of the government forgetting whose interests they need to […]

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