MAY 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 5
T H E F R O N T
Taiwan Brings Toxics to TexasIn a victory for a tiny, embattled environmental movement in Calhoun County, Texas, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delayed granting the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corporation the wastewater discharge permits it needs to begin operations at the company's newly expanded facilities. The EPA announced in February 1991 that it is requiring the preparation of an environmental impact statement before it will grant the permits. Formosa Plastics, Taiwan's largest chemical producer, has a history of environmental degradation and violations both in Taiwan and in its plants in the United States.
The company is currently in the midst of expanding its 800- employee plant in Point Comfort, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. The new seven-plant facility will be the largest petrochemical factory built in the United States in a decade, and will produce more than 1.5 billion pounds of chemicals each year. Formosa plans to start up operations in the first of the completed plants in spring 1992.
Formosa predicts that the $1.5 billion expansion will provide 4,000 jobs at the peak of the construction phase and will create 1,200 permanent jobs in the economically depressed Calhoun County. Currently, 2,600 workers are employed constructing the plant. Employment levels around Point Comfort plummeted in the 1980s as the region's commercial fishing, agriculture and oil industries declined and local chemical plants laid off workers. In 1986, the unemployment level reached 15.8 percent.
Texas politicians and local economic developers responded enthusiastically to Formosa's expansion plans--so enthusiastically, in fact, that the company has received close to $170 million in tax breaks and direct subsidies from the state and local governments for locating the new plant in Calhoun County.
Not everyone in Point Comfort welcomes the idea of a new Formosa facility, however. Diane Wilson founded the Calhoun County Resource Watch (CCRW) in 1989 to oppose the expansion plan because she feared the potential environmental effects. Wilson has hooked up with Texans United, a statewide environmental organization, to fight Formosa, but in Point Comfort she remains virtually a one-woman opposition force, with little support from the community, the local press or government. Her tactics-- picketing, a hunger strike and what she calls the "harassment" of local environmental commissioners--have alienated many of her neighbors, but she remains committed "to waking them up" to the dangers posed by the company's presence.
Wilson's activities have drawn public attention to Formosa's complete disregard for the environment in the United States and in Taiwan, where Formosa has been confronted with an increasingly strong environmental movement. Texans United reports that in December 1990 over 20,000 people demonstrated in Taipai and the county of I-Lan to protest a $7 billion Formosa chemical complex proposed for Taiwan. Wilson, who visited Taiwan last year, says her concern with Formosa extends beyond the company's operations in Texas. "I saw what they do to their motherland--it outraged me. I don't want Formosa in the solar system."
In Point Comfort, Formosa has been hit with two of the largest environmental fines in Texas history. In spring 1990, the Texas Water Commission fined the company $247,000 for 17 violations over a three-year period, including improper storage of oil and other waste, cracked wastewater retention ponds and releases of extremely acidic wastewater into surface water. In October 1990, the five-state Region Six office of the EPA handed Formosa a proposed $8.3 million fine for illegal disposal of hazardous waste. Formosa settled the fine with the EPA earlier this year for $3,375,000.
Formosa's facility in neighboring Louisiana has been fined several times since 1987 for excessive releases of vinyl chloride. In 1986, a Delaware judge ordered a six-week shutdown of a Formosa plant in that state in response to a vinyl chloride monomer release so extreme that the factory's sprinkler system went off and employees were forced to wear breathing equipment. Vinyl chloride has been linked to liver, stomach and brain cancer, miscarriages and birth defects; it is one of only seven chemicals for which there are specific EPA emission standards.
Formosa's international record make Texas environmentalists especially concerned about its proposed expanded operations at its Port Comfort facility, for which the company has received permits to release vinyl chloride as well as other known carcinogens, including ethylene dichloride.
Rick Abraham of Texans United believes that environmentalists may still be able to protect the community from some of the environmental and health hazards, however. He notes that the process of preparing environmental impact statements allows for "significant public input and revisions" that can "lead to the plant being built differently."
But the environmental impact statement requirement has not prevented Formosa from continuing construction at the new plant. On April 10, the Texas Water Commission ruled unanimously to authorize the construction of a wastewater discharge facility. Formosa spokesman Jim Shepard says that 186 people from Point Comfort and the surrounding area showed up at the hearing to support continued construction and that "the only people who opposed it were an attorney and Mrs. Wilson."
"I got creamed by the dollar bill," Wilson laughs, explaining that those supporters are anxious to bring new jobs to the area. On a more serious note, she criticizes the Commission for failing to look beyond the prospect of 1,200 new jobs in making its decision. "The whole issue was economics. The environmental issue did not come up," she says.
Roger Meacham of the EPA's Region Six Office says that Formosa is continuing construction "at its own risk" since it "is not a sure thing at this point" that the company will receive the wastewater discharge permit. Meacham says that the EPA has no authority to prohibit the corporation from building.
Abraham, however, contends that it is "wrong and illegal" for construction to continue while the impact statement is being prepared. Texans United and CCRW are planning to take legal action against Formosa in federal court to halt construction.
Wilson believes that publicity outside of Point Comfort has been her strongest weapon in drawing support and getting the EPA to act. The Houston Post, in fact, reported that Formosa officials believed that the EPA chose to hand down the $8.3 million fine only in the wake of a television report on Wilson which aired in April 1990 on the program 48 Hours. Wilson says that she has learned that huge corporations like Formosa are concerned with little besides their bottom line. "When you take money from them," she says, "they stop and listen to you."
- Holley Knaus
Profoundly critical of most unions for their complacency and lack of militancy, 1,000 labor dissidents gathered in Detroit during the weekend of April 20 to discuss ways to reinvigorate the U.S. labor movement. At a conference held by Labor Notes, a Detroit-based monthly magazine, the activists discussed creative organizing techniques and non-traditional tactics for confronting employers.
The conference emphasized the importance of organizing non- unionized workers. One panel reported on efforts to organize in the South, where union membership is especially low. Members of Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), a group of African-American workers in North Carolina and Georgia, explained how they establish worker committees in non-union plants, paving the way for eventual union organizing drives, and hold "speak outs" where workers are encouraged to voice their discontent with their jobs.
BWFJ described the substantial impediments to labor organizing in the South, including an anti-union political climate, right- to-work laws and racism. They pointed to an unsuccessful Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) unionization campaign in 1990 at Goldtex, a North Carolina textile company, as an example of the difficulties in--and the importance of--organizing the region. Gordon Dillahunt, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 1038, explained that it was a white worker who invited the ACTWU to begin its organizing drive, but the worker eventually turned on the campaign when he decided black workers were gaining too important a role. The white worker is now a manager, Dillahunt said. One former Goldtex worker, Ina Mae Best, spoke movingly about the difficult working conditions at the factory, how managers mistreated workers and how she was fired for her outspoken support of the union.
On a more hopeful note, many conference participants were able to describe difficult organizing obstacles they had overcome. Rafael Estrada, an organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399's "Justice for Janitors" campaign, described an aggressive organizing campaign that unionized Los Angeles' janitors and revitalized a dormant union. Confronted with "incredible exploitation and incredible corruption," the janitors undertook demonstrations and protests, eventually succeeding in unionizing many new buildings and winning improved wages and benefits. The key to the Justice for Janitors campaign, Estrada argued, was its use of Latino organizers for a Latino workforce and its militancy. "You organize not by elections, you organize by action," he said. "We are in the streets and we are staying in the streets because we will not let anything take from us what we have won."
The conference's focus on organizing, said Dan LaBotz, author of A Troublemakers' Handbook, strategies, we will turn the labor movement around." By organizing new workers and democratizing their unions from the bottom up, conference participants hope to eventually reshape the labor movement.
The success of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) suggests that such a vision might be achievable. TDU has been working for more than a decade to reform the Teamsters, the largest U.S. union and one which is widely held to be extremely corrupt. The U.S. government placed the Teamsters in trusteeship in 1989 and has ordered a government-supervised election for the leadership of the union in August 1991. TDU members are hopeful that their candidate, Ron Carey, will be elected president of the Teamsters, a virtually unimaginable prospect 10 years ago. In his keynote speech at the conference, Carey said that TDU's "reform movement is not about Ron Carey, [but] about the future of the labor movement." He pledged not only to make the Teamsters into a union responsive to its members' needs, but to aggressively promote the workers' political interests on issues such as health care, lead the way in resisting corporate demands and extend meaningful forms of solidarity to workers in other unions.
In an age of an increasingly integrated world economy, the union activists held that just as it is necessary to organize workplaces and industries, it is necessary to organize internationally. One of the topics of greatest concern was the proposed Mexico-United States-Canada free trade agreement. Mexican and Canadian workers at the conference joined with the U.S. attendees in condemning the free trade agreement as a way for multinational corporations to undercut the high wages paid to U.S. and Canadian workers and push them in the direction of Mexico's extremely low wage levels. Workers from all three countries took the initial steps to form an international solidarity network.
Capturing the sense of the conference, Jerry Tucker, head of the New Directions Movement, a dissident movement in the United Auto Workers, said the U.S. labor movement "is in need of a serious overhaul" and must recognize the limits unions face "without internationalization."
- Robert Weissman
Saying No To Waste
In January 1991, the Organization of African Unity adopted a treaty banning the importation of hazardous wastes into the region. Hammered out in Bamako, Mali, and already signed by 12 countries, the Bamako Convention is the most recent international effort to ban Third World imports of hazardous wastes.
The Bamako treaty specifically bans the import of hazardous waste, including nuclear waste, and bans the dumping and ocean incineration of waste.
The Bamako Convention was held to address the failure of previous treaties, such as the United Nations Environmental Program's 1989 Basel Convention, to protect African nations from the dumping of wastes on their soil. Wawa Leba of the OAU Secretariat said, "After Basel, Africans realized that we would have to take the responsibility for protecting our own continent as it was clear that many industrialized nations were unwilling to help us do so."
The massive scope of the problem confronted by the OAU is detailed in a recent Greenpeace report, "The International Trade in Wastes: A Greenpeace Inventory." The report describes the schemes that companies and nations have designed to maintain their ability to ship their wastes abroad.
The countries experiencing the worst problems are heavily concentrated in Africa, Latin America and the Asian-Pacific rim. Exploiting the poverty of the Third World, corporations offer what seem like substantial sums of money in order to convince governments to accept hazardous imports.
The Scoot Corporation of New York City, for example, offered Paraguay $15 million in order to persuade the government to accept between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of municipal waste from Manhattan each month for 10 years. Greenpeace reports that "Scoot has assured Paraguayan officials that U.S. garbage is harmless, but typically a ton of U.S. household garbage includes about 20 pounds of hazardous wastes." Residents of the region where the processing plant was to be located, skeptical of Scoot's claims, protested, leading the project to be put on hold.
Much of the international waste trade is carried out under the banner of "recycling." A number of international treaties and many government regulations allow hazardous waste to be imported if it is designated for recycling. Many companies based in industrialized nations, such as Ashland Metal and BASF, use this loophole to export their waste to the Third World and avoid dealing with relatively strict regulations in their own countries.
Most of the importing countries do not have adequate technology or information to handle hazardous wastes, irrespective of pledges to recycle. Where recycling does occur, in many cases the recycled output is used to make materials such as cement, creating potential health hazards which may last for decades.
The failure to regulate the international waste trade adequately leads companies to establish some patently ridiculous arrangements. According to Greenpeace, Canada imports 160,000 tons of waste from the United States each year. At the same time, the United States imports nearly 50,000 tons of hazardous wastes from Canada. Companies in each country find it easier to trade bilaterally than adhere to national standards for disposal.
The immense size of the international waste trade and the intricacies of regulating it make attempts to "manage" it almost guaranteed to fail, according to Greenpeace. As a result, Greenpeace and other environmentalists view efforts like the Bamako Convention as critical to solving the problem. However, it is much easier for industrialized countries to ban the export of wastes than it is for developing countries to ban their import. The only real solution, Greenpeace argues, is a global ban on the waste trade.
- Valerie Dulk and Ann Wei