The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 5

C O R P O R A T E   P R O F I L E

Mischief, Misdeeds & Medacity

The Real 3M

by Jim Donahue

In their haste to unearth a positive example of a green corporation, environmentalists and media commentators have uncritically accepted 3M claims to be an environmental paragon. 3M, or the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, is frequently lauded by environmental organizations and the media for its efforts to eliminate hazardous waste by reducing production rather than forcing the world to come up with new ways to store it. A close look at the company's record, however, reveals serious blemishes and demonstrates the need for an independent and skeptical vigilance toward any large corporation.

"Pollution Prevention" Pays--PR benefits

3M was founded in 1902 as a small corundum mining company near Two Harbors, Minnesota. Today, the multinational conglomerate is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, employs more than 87,500 workers and operates 89 plants in 37 foreign countries. 3M's industrial and electronics division manufactures audio and video tapes, abrasives, wires and cables, roof granules, fiber optics and fluorochemicals. The company is also involved in the pharmaceutical and household products businesses. Its best known products include Scotch tape and Post-it note pads.

In the environmental community, 3M is best known for its "Pollution Prevention Pays" (3P) program, an environmental strategy launched by the company in 1975 to encourage employees to develop manufacturing processes that eliminate or reduce waste.

The company claims in its promotional packets that, on average, the program prevented 72 million pounds of pollutants from being released per year between 1975 and 1989. Given the dramatic growth of 3M during this period, however, it is likely that 3M's prevention strategy only slowed the rate of increase in the amount of toxic chemicals being released from 3M plants. According to the only comprehensive emissions data on 3M available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),3M actually increased its toxic chemical emissions from 61.7 million pounds in 1987 to 62.4 million pounds in 1988. Although the company aggressively reports how much waste it prevented since 1975, 3M spokesperson Rick Renner does not deny the likelihood that 3M had actually been increasing the total output of waste while promoting the 3P program throughout the 1970s and 1980s. "That isn't something I know for sure," says Renner.

In 1988, 3M launched a $150 million environmental program to cut its toxic air emissions in the United States and abroad by installing cleaner and more efficient technologies at its production facilities. 3M says it will reduce 1987 air pollution levels at its plants worldwide by 70 percent by the end of 1993. Renner explains that this goal will be achieved by using the existing technology required in the United States under the Clean Air Act. The program is also designed to cut the company's worldwide discharges into the air, water and on land by 90 percent by the year 2000. But 3M's Renner concedes, "We do not now have the technology to achieve the year 2000 goals," saying 3M "believes [it will have] all the technologies in place" by the year 2000.

Corporate lobbyists in Washington are quick to spotlight 3M's expectations as hard evidence of industry's voluntary commitment to the environment.But Brian Lipsett of the Arlington, Virginia- based Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste says that while 3M is one of a few companies that have made "well- substantiated claims" of reducing waste at its source, it remains one of the United States' worst corporate polluters. "Talk is cheap," says Lipsett in response to questions about 3M's stated pollution reduction goals.

Despite favorable publicity for its proven and unproven environmental accomplishments, 3M continues to pose a significant threat to human health and the environment. In 1988, 3M ranked as the 13th leading emitter of toxic chemicals in the United States. Moreover, according to a survey by the National Wildlife Federation, 3M's Charles Town, West Virginia plant was the 12th leading emitter of carcinogens in 1987.

Some environmentalists point out that since 3M is currently one of the biggest waste producers, the company will pose significant threats to human health and the environment even if it accomplishes its goal of reducing waste by 90 percent.

Environmental crimes

Their attention deflected by the company's highly publicized environmental programs, environmentalists and the media often ignore 3M's violations of environmental regulations. 3M's Chemolite Center, for example, has committed numerous environmental crimes and causes a great deal of pollution. In April 1991, the facility sponsored a tree planting event with the Boy Scouts to celebrate Earth Day. A plant manager was quoted in a highly publicized news release, as saying that the event serves as "a lasting reminder" of 3M's environmental record. The news release failed to mention, however, the numerous fines assessed on the facility for emissions violations:

  • The state of Minnesota fined the Chemolite incinerator $1.5 million in 1989 for 17 violations of emission limits. The state found that 3M did not report company test results which showed that highly dangerous quantities of zinc, cadmium and lead had been released into the air over several months. The fine was the largest ever assessed by the state;
  • The incinerator was fined $95,000 by Minnesota in 1988 for illegally releasing large amounts of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. The fine was imposed only two months after the company publicized its new goal to reduce hydrocarbon emissions and eliminate odors around the plant by 1992;
  • Also in 1988, 3M paid $158,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups which charged the Chemolite plant with violating the Clean Water Act in 1987. The Atlantic States Legal Foundation and Citizens for a Better Environment claimed that 3M illegally exceeded emission limits set by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The environmental groups produced documentation proving that 3M discharged illegal amounts of phenols, fecal coliforms, zinc, ammonia, oil and grease into the Mississippi River. More than half of the settlement amount was used to finance environmental projects in Minnesota.

3M was also fined $1.4 million in 1989 for illegally importing hazardous chemicals without notifying the EPA. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires firms to notify the EPA 90 days, or in some cases 21 days, before they intend to create or import a new chemical substance. Last November, the fine was reduced to $111,780 by an administrative law judge. The EPA is currently appealing the reduction.

What about the workers?

The focus on 3M's 3P program and its environment-friendly rhetoric has also led many to overlook the company's willingness to risk workers' lives. In April 1991, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fined the company $117,500 for wilfully violating agency rules in the distribution of a radioactive product. The NRC concluded that 3M failed to reveal all of the results of its tests on static eliminators--devices manufactured by the company which contain radioactive material and are used to remove static electricity from the air when making products such as plastic wrap--and ordered 3M to recall all 41,000 of the static eliminators that it leased to companies around the country. Problems with the devices were first reported in 1988, when workers at Ashland Chemical noticed large amounts of radiation leaking from a 3M device. In issuing the seven citations against 3M, the NRC said the company failed to ensure that workers would use the device appropriately and failed to provide adequate operating instructions.

Enforcement data provided to Multinational Monitor by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicate that 3M has repeatedly endangered its own employees as well. Between 1980 and 1990, OSHA cited 3M for violations of worker safety laws on 154 occasions, issuing fines in 40 of those cases. Some of the violations occurred between 1987 and 1989, while John Pendergrass, a former 3M official, headed OSHA.

Data now emerging in Arkansas show that workers at 3M's Little Rock plant die of heart and lung disease at a significantly higher rate than the national average. The plant, which manufactures granules used in roof shingles, is under investigation by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Little Rock attorney Bernard Whetstone, who is representing 3M workers considering a lawsuit against the company, conducted a survey which shows that at least 126 current and former 3M workers have suffered heart, lung and hearing problems. Another 21 workers have suffered or continue to suffer from other ailments such as back injuries, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and digestive disorders.

The workers are very worried, and some believe that 3M may not be forthcoming with them about the dangers to which they are exposed. One employee was quoted in the survey as saying, "3M gave us a lung test 3-4 years ago. I could hardly breathe into their machine but my results came back normal." Another reported that 17 workers have died at the plant during the span of his employment at 3M. The manager of the plant declined to comment on the allegations. 3M officials in St. Paul were not available to comment.

In 1988, 3M paid $7 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of three Cordova, Illinois workers who died in 1984 while working for McDowell Davis Co., a contracting firm hired by 3M to clean out chemical tanks. The three workers were overcome by nitrogen gas as they entered a 10,000 gallon tank and subsequently suffocated. The families who received the settlement contend that a 3M manager neglected to empty the tank before the workers entered it.

3M mistreats its workers in other ways as well. Although the company takes pride in its employee-management relationship, in 1986 3M tried to close its video and audio tape manufacturing plant in Freehold, New Jersey. 364 workers would have lost their jobs as a result of the closing, but, in an historical display of international solidarity, 250 workers earning minimal wages at a 3M plant in South Africa went on a half-day strike in solidarity with the Freehold workers. According to Richard Leonard, a director at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union which represented many of the Freehold workers, "It was the first time in our knowledge that South African workers have responded in solidarity by taking a job action on behalf of North American workers." South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and songwriter Bruce Springsteen also joined the plant-closing protest. The plant remains open today, but with far fewer employees.

3M again demonstrated a lack of respect for its workers in 1987, when it illegally forced employees to take random drug and alcohol tests at its plant in Camarillo, California. A 3M employee who argued that the company-supervised tests violated his right to privacy was suspended by 3M for two weeks without pay. The suspension occurred after the employee submitted to 3M tests conducted by his own doctor which showed him to be drug- free. In 1987, a Superior Court judge ordered 3M to stop the illegal tests on its workers.

Recession and rhetoric

3M's earnings for the first quarter of 1991 fell for the first time since 1985. Avoiding environmental crimes and reducing the health and safety risks inflicted on its workers during hard times will be difficult. Fortunately for 3M, media and policy makers highlight its environmental achievements and goals more often than they consider the serious dangers the company poses to its workers and the general public. Despite the accolades earned by Pollution Prevention Pays, 3M has a long way to go before it should be held up as an example. And with profits down from the current economic recession, the likelihood that 3M will truly clean up its act is not very great.

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