Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How one man forced a greedy corporation to do the right thing by leaking a memo

If you do something careless or stupid or illegal that costs other people money, you should reimburse them, right?

Even though corporations are people, some of them get away with breaking the law or costing other people money. They destroy the environment and make other people pay for the cleanup, or they pay their workers so little they rely on taxpayer-funded government assistance.

Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, once forced a greedy corporation to do the right thing simply by exposing its plans to evade the law.

The Sierra Club, by the way, has for years fought with the Teamsters against opening the border to unsafe, polluting Mexican trucks.

Pope, writing in EcoWatch, points out that hikers in Sierra County, Calif., have to reimburse the county if they are evacuated by air for a medical emergency. That could cost more than $5,000. A climber air lifted from Yosemites cliffs can easily run $85,000. "But that’s fair—we ought to pay for the costs we create," he wrote.
So how much did the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine Freedom Industries, the company whose sloppy handling of the toxic chemical MCHM caused 10,000 gallons to spill into the Elk River, poisoning the water supply of hundreds of thousands of Charleston, West Virginia residents? Pathetically, a measly $11,000, less than the cost of a single burst appendix helicopter ambulanced in Sierra County. This when 300,000 people had to find alternative water supplies for ten days.
BP is no different. Nor are the banks, or pharmaceutical companies or automakers. The law sets penalties so low that the corporations shrug them off as the cost of doing business.

Pope explained how it was done in one case. Early in his career, he was slipped a memo about an oil company that had a natural gas field partly in federal waters and therefore subject to federal price controls:
The memo boasted a complex decision tree complete with % estimates of how likely the feds were to discover the liability on their own, what the oil company’s chances of winning in court were (less than half) and finally what were the odds of jail terms for company employees. Each of these had a dollar value attached, and the final conclusion was—don’t report. I shared the leaked document with federal energy regulators. The oil company observed the price controls. 
If only more stories about corporate greed had happy endings like that.