Mercury in U.S. lakes; cyanide in India Ð trust the CEOs!

“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” — Sir John Maynard Keynes

On August 24, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that more than “one-third of the nation’s lakes and nearly one-fourth of its rivers contain fish that may be contaminated with mercury, dioxin, PCB and pesticide pollution.”

“It’s about trout, not tuna. It’s about what you catch on the shore, not what you buy on the shelf,” said EPA administrator Mike Leavitt. “I want to make clear that this agency views mercury as a toxin,” he said. “This is about the health of pregnant mothers and small children, that’s the primary focus of our concern.”

Though Leavitt claimed that mercury emissions “from human activities” had dropped over the last decade, EPA nevertheless posted mercury advisories for fish in 44 states. In addition, Montana and Washington (major fishing states) warned their citizens of possible widespread contamination of river and lake fish. Fly fishermen, in other words, can catch as many bass and trout as they want, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted people not to eat more than one six ounce portion a week of fish in U.S. sweet waters.

By blaming “human activities,” Leavitt employed a euphemism that evokes guilt from citizens without any connection to poisoning the streams. Why not just say: “CEOs of specific industries knowingly dump poison into lakes and rivers.” After all, these CEOs understand that mercury and chlorine emissions from their coal-fired power plants will alter the chemistry of the waters.

Corporate executives know that mercury and PCBs seep out in the processes of burning hazardous and medical waste and that they end up in rivers and lakes.

Unlike some toxic elements, which lose potency over time, mercury’s ability to damage the nervous system endures. So, concluded, Leavitt, “man-made emissions need to be reduced and regulated.”

Leavitt sounded serious about the pollution issue. But his boss, George W. Bush, remains less than zealous over regulating the polluters. Bush has warm feelings toward CEOs – especially those who contribute to the campaign coffers. He respects and trusts these virtuous and very religious company bosses; ergo, they should regulate themselves.

The fact that CEOs of major energy and waste disposal companies have continued to dump toxic materials in the public water for decades has not affected Bush’s judgment. He is bullish on corporate morality and bearish on public health. He’s also pushing to open up protected federal lands, wildlife and other preserves for more drilling and energy exploration – processes that would worsen the already critical condition of the lakes and rivers.

The President’s optimism appears in his “Utility Mercury Reductions” plan, a characteristically misnamed project that actually increases the possibilities for polluters and frees them from the responsibility of cleaning up the mercury they engendered. According to the Sierra Club’s January 30, 2004, Watch, the White House plan would permit three times more mercury to get dumped over the next decades.

So, what’s a citizen to think? On the one hand, the FDA warns ” especially pregnant women ” not to eat mercury-laden fish. On the other, EPA, following the Bush guidelines, relies on the good faith of CEOs to voluntarily diminish dumping more mercury poison from its production facilities.

Under Bush’s premise, that corporate executives represent the highest levels of public morality and therefore should police their own environmental behavior, Willie Sutton (the 20th Century’s most colorful bank robber) should be named trustworthy enough to guard the bank at night.Bush adheres to the corporate publicity apparatus’ dogma: government is bad and the private sector good.

This blatantly ridiculous tenet existed long before the Bushie era. Indeed, even before the Reagan presidency (“trees cause pollution”)the mind manipulators had blitzed the public with a barrage of messages about the inherent virtues of the private sector. “Business class” became far more than an airplane seating reference. It signified efficiency, high level competence and practicality – the virtues of our age.

Leading business executives routinely conspire to rip off the stockholders and the public. Their public relations teams simultaneously create halos over their heads. The 19th Century Robber Barons became “Industrial Statesmen” while the gonifs of Enron and Halliburton merited the highest level access to political power. Dick Cheney met with these larcenous executives to plan the nation’s energy policy.

The Enron and WorldCom scandals and headlines about Halliburton overcharging the Pentagon should have at least made a dent in the façade of virtue that covers these global production and distribution giants.

Yet, adding up the business hanky panky with the environmental destruction one arrives at an obvious conclusion: corporate executives understand that corporate profits come before protecting the environment or people. Bhopal, India provides a dramatic illustration of how corporate America responded to a 9/11 size catastrophe.

On December 3, 1984, more than 3,000 residents of that Indian city died in hours when cyanide gas leaked from a U.S.-owned plant and found its way into the lungs and eyes of 3,000 people as they slept. Subsequently, 12,000 more succumbed to the impact of methyl isocyanate.

In addition, hundreds of thousands suffered from diseases related to the deadly chemical’s effect on the human organism. Dr. Nalok Banerjee, of India’s Center for Rehabilitation Studies, found levels of respiratory ailments, eye and gastronomical disorders at almost four times the levels in other Indian areas.

The perpetrators of this slaughter belong to Al-Carbide, not Al-Qaeda. The top executives of Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, did not “waste” their stockholders’ money by investing in safety procedures that could have prevented the industrial mishap; nor did this company subsequently rush to pay compensation to the victims or their families or even contribute to cleaning up their deadly mess.

They said, in effect, “to hell with those people. They had the misfortune of sucking cyanide into their lungs.” That’s how the cookie crumbles in the Third World. Unlike the fiends who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Indian managers of Union Carbide in Bhopal did not set out with malice to slaughter thousands of civilians. Likewise, those CEOs that ordered toxic wastes dumped in rivers and lakes did not intend to make trout sick and uneatable or cause health problems in humans. The disasters came as by-products of routine corporate behavior.

The CEOS apparently didn’t learn in church that people should not defecate in the plate they eat from. The pious Christians who occupy power in government and industry are hardly unaware that corporate fouling of the human nest occurs repeatedly throughout the United States and the Third World.

In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil, the largest in U.S. history. The spill killed birds and animals, and threatened the delicate food chain that supported the region’s fishing industry.

A government Commission identified “privatization, self regulation and neglect” as root causes of the tragedy. “The disaster could have been prevented by simple adherence to the original rules” but “concern for profits obliterated concern for safe operations.”

In Nigeria, Shell, Mobil, Chevron and other major oil companies colluded with corrupt governments to stop protests in the Niger Delta where farmers claimed, with compelling evidence, that drilling operations have made them sick and ruined their land and water supply. Similar oil company activities have brought devastation to indigenous people in Ecuador. Throughout the third world, CEOs have ordered actions that have led to death and environmental destruction. Have these and thousands of more examples not taught the Bushies the obvious lesson: regulate?

The quest for corporate profit invalidates concern for the environment, unless, of course, that concern means hastening the end of the world, so that the chosen few can enjoy the Rapture that accompanies it. The “non-chosen” should remain confused and ignorant about the imminence of the environmental decay. Better they should focus their fears on Al-Qaeda than Al-Carbide.

This indifferent attitude on environment has led the Administration to coddle Al-Carbide (Dow Chemical) rather than insist it compensates the victims of Bhopal and cleans up its cyanide mess. The media, by not reporting follow ups on the Bhopal disaster, toed the White House line.

Thanks to grass roots groups in India, other third world countries and the United States, environmental concerns find their way to public attention. Perhaps, Bush can advise fishermen to ignore FDA warnings. “Eat as many fish as you want. Mercury is good for you.”

As far as the 15,000 dead Indians – well, in the world of global production, cyanides happen!

Saul Landau’s new book is THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE REPLACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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