The Multinational Monitor

APRIL 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 4


T H E   F R O N T

Corporate Greenwash

Charging that corporate polluters are "trying to clean up their image but not their act," environmentalists denounced the Earth Tech '90 Technology Fair, held April 4-8 at the foot of the U.S. Capitol. Greenpeace, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes and Earth First! joined in condemning the fair.

Advertised as showcasing "the technologies, products and strategies that may help achieve environmentally sustainable development," Earth Tech featured displays from dozens of companies, as well as several government agencies and environmental organizations. Among the exhibitors at Earth Tech were the American Nuclear Society, Arco, Bechtel Group, Inc., Chevron Corp., Du Pont, the National Coal Association, the Society of the Plastics Industry and Westinghouse Electric Corp. Earth Tech also included displays from several companies, such as U.S. Windpower, involved in the development of "clean" technologies.

By participating in Earth Tech, held in the weeks leading up to the April 22 celebration of Earthday, some of the nation's worst polluters sought to achieve "innocence by association," according to environmental critics. The environmentalists said the corporations participating in Earth Tech tried to project the image of being ecologically minded, even as they continue their environmentally destructive practices. The largest corporate polluters "sure look good, all dressed up here in America's front yard," said Peter Bahouth, executive director of Greenpeace, but "at the same time it's business as usual with their pollution in our backyards."

The sponsors of Earth Tech dismissed such comments. Ken Murphy, the executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the sponsor of Earth Tech, said the idea that corporations could obscure their poor environmental records through involvement with events like Earth Tech "assumes a level of naivete on the part of the media, politicians and the public which I just don't think exists." Earth Tech did not screen participating companies, Murphy stated. Instead, Earth Tech co-chairmen Senators John Heinz, R-Pa, and Al Gore, D-Tenn, "issued a challenge to American business, non-profit organizations and government agencies to come to Washington and show your stuff."

The plastics industry had a particularly large presence at the fair, touting plastic as a recyclable substance. Bonnie Merrill Linebach, director of external communications for the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), said SPI attended Earth Tech to "spread the word on plastic recyclability and the exciting possibilities" it creates. David Rappaport, toxics campaign director for Greenpeace, said it is understandable that "plastics recycling is very exciting to the plastics industry, since it is used as a tool to ensure the industry's continued growth." He explained that the concept of plastics recycling is misleading, because it does not conserve resources in the way other forms of recycling do. "Because most recycled plastic is not used for its original purpose, [but for] lower grade and in many cases new purposes," he said, recycling requires the "continued generation of as much plastic as [was produced in] the first place."

Du Pont added to SPI's promotional efforts, displaying benches made from recyclable plastic. And Earth Tech itself encouraged visitors to separate their trash into two sets of trash cans: one for ostensibly recyclable plastic; a second for other trash.

Du Pont also highlighted its phase-out of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production. A Du Pont spokesman at Earth Tech acknowledged that Du Pont had been slow to explore alternatives to CFCs, but claimed that scientific concern about the dangers of CFCs dipped in the mid-1980s and that no corporations realized the need to consider substitutes. Carolyn Hartmann, a staff attorney with U.S. PIRG, countered that Du Pont has been slow in phasing out CFCs and was especially to blame for the lack of alternatives. "Du Pont halted its search for alternatives for approximately five years in the early 1980s," Hartmann stated. "In 1980, Du Pont and other CFC producers and users joined together to form the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy to fight against CFC regulations. This certainly does not support Du Pont's claim that regulatory concern was on the decline. Five years of important research was lost, and today Du Pont cites the lack of alternatives as a primary reason for why we cannot phase out CFCs before 2000."

The nuclear power industry also maintained a high profile at Earth Tech. At least 10 companies closely involved with commercial nuclear power either had booths at the technology fair or served on the Earth Tech organizing committee. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) handed out a question and answer booklet which attacked the idea of energy conservation by asserting that having "more energy and more electricity [is] very important. If we limit the amount of energy we have, we lose our freedom and our democratic society." The booklet went on to claim that "of all the electricity generating methods, nuclear is the cleanest and least damaging to our environment. This is true from mining of the uranium ore to final disposal of waste." Environmental critics blasted the views presented by the ANS, saying they directly contradict the record of the nuclear power industry. "Nuclear power is one of the dirtiest energy forms ever devised," stated Justine Gulledge of NIRS. "Nuclear power kills people and contaminates the environment at every step of the fuel chain: from mining and milling, through processing, enrichment and fuel fabrication, to electrical production and radioactive waste storage."

To counter the views of the worst polluting participants, Greenpeace activists donned white lab coats and tried to stand near targeted displays so they could speak to visitors. When security officers attempted to escort the protestors out, they handcuffed themselves to the displays. Nineteen were arrested for demonstrating without a permit.

Earth Tech's environmental critics view the event as a precursor to a burgeoning corporate strategy of capitalizing on and co- opting growing public concern about the environment. "As environmental awareness increases and citizens everywhere begin to put polluters' feet to the fire, corporate America has engaged in a campaign to paint [itself] green," commented Bahouth. "To the polluters under the tents, you can be sure that there are those who will continue to track your records on the environment and won't let the public be fooled by your."

- By Robert Weissman

High-Tech Pollution

The 1981 discovery that the Fairchild Semiconductor company had contaminated the drinking water supply of an entire neighborhood in San Jose with toxic wastes should have changed the image of the electronics industry forever. Angry parents came forward to report birth defects, and the California Department of Health Services later con-firmed that the rate of birth defects in the affected neighborhood was three times the "normal rate." Yet, high-technology industries continue to project a "clean technology" image.

Since 1981, evidence has accumulated that Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the electronics industry, is becoming a high-technology industrial wasteland. Silicon Valley high-tech industries produce 100,000 tons of toxic wastes annually and discharge about 12 million pounds of toxic waste into the environment. For workers and residents, the con-sequences are severe:

  • Over 150 underground chemical leaks containing more than 100 chemicals have contaminated over 200 public and private wells;
  • Silicon Valley has had 29 sites listed on the federal Superfund list, far more than any other region of the country;
  • More highly toxic gases such as arsine and phosphine are used and stored in Silicon Valley than in any other place on earth;
  • The industrial illness rate among semiconductor workers is three times the national average for all production workers;
  • An epidemiological study at one semiconductor plant revealed a miscarriage rate twice the national norm; and
  • Silicon Valley has registered air-borne levels of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) the chemicals that are destroying the protective ozone layer higher than in any other place in the world.

Dangerous substances and corporate managers willing to sacrifice human health for profits produced these chemical calamities. A 1978 internal Occidental Petroleum memorandum written by the company's Director of Health and Safety concerning the company's production of the toxic chemical DBCP revealed the indifference to human well-being that pervades the industry. It recommended that the company estimate the number of people exposed and the proportion likely to become sterile or get cancer and then calculate the total costs of legal compensation Occidental would be likely to have to pay. "Should this product still show an adequate profit meeting corporate investment criteria," the memo stated, "the project should be considered further."

In contrast to Occidental, which fits the stereotype of a polluting petrochemical company, International Business Machines (IBM) epitomizes the high-tech industry's image as "clean producers." Residents of Silicon Valley have learned to look past IBM's sleek facade, however. The IBM facility in San Jose, listed as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1984, is one of the worst polluters in the United States. Its sloppy chemical handling has created an underground toxic contamination plume that stretches for five miles in the aquifer under San Jose and has contaminated numerous public and private wells with methyl chloroform and freon. On-site contamination at the plant includes high concentrations of chloroform, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, xylene and toluene.

IBM argues that leaving contaminants in the drinking water supply presents an "acceptable risk" to those residents dependent on the tainted water. Despite objections from community organizations, the city of San Jose, the county of Santa Clara and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the company has refused to conduct clean-up operations in a large section of an off-site aquifer and has success-fully appealed orders of the Regional Water Quality Control Board requiring stringent groundwater clean-up measures. IBM has even helped establish a major lobby and public relations firm, the "Industry Clean Water Task Force," " headed by a former IBM executive, to lobby government for less stringent toxic protection measures.

IBM's San Jose plant has also been the largest CFC pollution source in California, discharging 1.5 million pounds of the ozone destroyer into the atmosphere in 1987 alone. USA Today reported in July 1989 that the IBM plant in San Jose poses the third greatest threat to the ozone shield in the country (IBM's Endicott, NY plant ranked first). Following environmentalists' protests in 1989, IBM did promise to eliminate its CFC use by 1993 and is replacing the CFCs with water.

With electronics and other high-technology production becoming increasingly globalized, it is not just the CFCs from Silicon Valley that pose a worldwide environmental threat. The chemical rivers flowing from high-tech factories in communities around the world will find their way ever more frequently into the drinking water supplies of local populations, and the squeaky clean image of the electronics industry will do nothing to protect the exposed inhabitants.

Ted Smith
Ted Smith is the Executive Director of
the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.


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