JULY/AUGUST 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBERS 7 & 8
T H E · F R O N T
Under enormous pressure from European environmental groups, consumers and politicians, Shell Oil backed down in June 1995 from its plan to sink the toxic 460-foot-high Brent Spar oil platform in deep water west of Scotland.
The Brent Spar, an oil storage and tanker loading platform, was the first of 400 platforms in the North Sea to receive a license to be buried at sea. The environmental group Greenpeace was concerned that Shell would set a dangerous precedent and that the Brent Spar, which was located 118 miles northeast of the Shetland Islands, could be the first of many toxic dominoes to tumble under the sea.
Shell UK denied the platform was toxic, saying it had "stripped the Spar of its last lightbulb." But Greenpeace activists boarded the rig and collected waste samples. Laboratory analysis at the University of Exeter in England indicated that Shell's cleanup was far from complete. Greenpeace estimates that the Spar contains more than 5,500 tons of toxic sludge and radioactive waste residues accumulated during daily loading and storage operations. Greenpeace collected a signed affidavit from a former Shell worker who said he sealed three tanks of toxic chemicals into the storage tanks of the Spar in the early 1980s.
Shell maintained that sinking the Spar was the safest available option. A company statement says that the deep ocean where the Spar was to be sunk supported "low densities of animals and a small range of species and is essentially isolated from the surface and upper ocean." Sinking the Spar would have a "small, localized impact," the company said, offering "negligible environmental disadvantages."
Greenpeace spokesperson Deborah Rephan ridicules Shell's "localized impact" theory, citing cases of French radioactive material being found near Ireland and plastic waste from a Caribbean cruise ship washing up on Florida's shores. In a seabed rocked by ocean currents and tides, she says, sinking the Spar risked a spill of sludge, low-grade radioactive material and heavy metals. These toxins tend to bioaccumulate and intensify as they advance through the food chain, Rephan notes.
Shell UK also maintained that studies - which it commissioned - concluded that deep-sea disposal was the cheapest option open to it. The company estimated that sea disposal would cost $7.4 million compared with $28 million for land disposal. But there is no consensus on these figures. A study of the land-disposal option by Smit Engineering found that this method would have cost $6.25 million, less than a quarter of Shell's $28 million estimate.
The British Government publicly supported Shell's disposal plans. But a leaked report suggests that high government officials realized that sinking the Spar would pose serious environmental risks. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food report, "Toxicant Levels in Ballast Water from the Brent Spar," said the chemistry of the ballast water was "toxic to marine organisms" and should be treated as "hazardous waste." The report concluded that discharge should be "prohibited." In a hand-written memo attached to the report, Dr. John Campbell, the Ministry's head scientist, wrote that the "bottom line is that the waste [from the platform] cannot be dumped at sea."
A Greenpeace report, "No Grounds for Dumping," also concluded that sea disposal was ecologically hazardous. Acting on this conviction on April 30, Greenpeace activists boarded the Spar, defying a court order to leave and attempts by police and Shell staff to remove them. The protests and a Greenpeace publicity campaign inspired German consumers, who boycotted Shell gas stations in June, causing German sales to drop by 30 percent. Politicians joined the protests, with even conservative German Chancellor Helmunt Kohl raising the issue at the June G-7 summit of the heads of the leading industrialized nations in Halifax, Canada.
In a final aerial assault on June 20, a helicopter dropped four Greenpeace activists on the platform. By evening, Shell reversed its decision, citing "strong objections" from European governments.
Dr. Paul Johnston of the Exeter laboratory says in an analysis prepared for Greenpeace that "a full inventory of toxic and hazardous material aboard needs to be made." Before dismantling begins, "all liquid and sludge must be removed from the tanks," he says. "By preventing the dumping of the Brent Spar at sea," Johnston concludes, "we have derailed those wishing to resume the dumping of low-level radioactive waste or industrial waste banned by the London Convention in 1993."
- Kanika Singh
Mexico City - Birdwatchers and environmentalists throughout the Americas have their field glasses trained on a fledgling NAFTA-created environmental commission to see whether it can prod sluggish Mexican authorities to solve the mysterious deaths of 40,000 birds at a reservoir in Mexico last winter.
Mexican and U.S. environmental groups filed the first petition with the Montreal-based North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the monitoring organization created by the NAFTA environmental side agreement in June 1995. The three environmental groups behind the petition alleged that since the water birds died en masse last December and January, Mexican authorities have not done enough to root out the cause of what the petitioners describe as "[one of] the worst bird kills ever reported in North America."
Two Mexico City-based organizations, the Mexican Center of Environmental Rights and the Group of 100, joined by the Washington, D.C.-based National Audobon Society, stressed in their petition that the disaster could repeat itself in this winter's migratory season unless the problem is identified and preventative steps are taken. For the moment, the reservoir has been drained; keeping it this way would prevent the return of water fowl in December of this year. But the Mexican government will come under considerable pressure from agricultural interests to refill the reservoir in advance of the winter growing season. Describing the drained reservoir as "smelly," CEC spokesperson Rachel Vincent, who accompanied CEC Executive Director Victor Lichtinger, a former Mexican foreign ministry official, on a site visit in mid-June, says "there's obviously a lot of contamination" in the area.
Mexican novelist Homero Aridjís, president of the Group of 100, an organization of environmentally minded writers, artists and scientists from throughout the Americas, says two possible pollutants have been mentioned in connection with the bird migration that was cut short at the De Silva Reservoir in the central state of Guanajuato.
The explanation offered by Mexico's National Water Commission is that the birds were killed by endosulfan, a highly toxic chlorinated pesticide produced by Frankfurt, Germany-based Hoechst Schering and eleven other manufacturers around the world. The case against endosulfan as Mexico's serial bird killer, however, is flimsy:
* the pesticide is not very soluble, tends to accumulate in sediment and is unlikely to have spread throughout the reservoir's seven square miles, yet birds died all over its surface;
* endosulfan, which does not bioaccumulate much in the food chain, is more deadly to fish (having caused major fish kills in California and Germany) than to the birds that eat them, but relatively few fish died in the De Silva Reservoir;
* autopsies of some of the birds showed no endosulfan traces; and
* the expensive pesticide is not commonly used in Guanajuato.
The government says unidentified individuals dumped the expensive pesticide into the reservoir one night. Given the other limitations of the theory - and the Mexican government's reputation for coddling corporate polluters - environmentalists are wary of the official story, which fails to pinpoint a responsible party and requires no corrective government action.
"The [government's] investigations reflect the defects of all Mexican investigations, including the economic, penal and environmental ones," Aridjís says. "They don't go beyond vagueness, impossibilities and, in the end, there is no one responsible for anything. It's a smokescreen over the violations."
In another theory, the birds fall victim to a more tangible culprit: pollutants discharged by leather tanneries that line the rivers above the reservoir. While some endosulfan traces have been detected in the reservoir, high levels of chromium were also found, Aridjís says. The tanneries' main customers are Mexican-owned factories in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico's shoe-making capital, though some tanneries have increased leather exports to the United States under NAFTA, Aridjís says. Chromium strengthens leather and makes it more water repellant, and is commonly used on shoe sole leather.
Of particular concern is the Mexican tanning industry's emissions of hexavalent chromium, which is highly toxic to wildlife and humans, says Audubon attorney Mary Minette. For this reason, tanneries in much of the world use trivalent chromium, which is much less toxic. In addition to tannery emissions, Minette is concerned with emissions from a plant located about a mile above the reservoir, Central Chemical of Mexico, which produces chromium to supply the region's tanneries. This facility, which dumps effluent into the Leon River, according to Mexican National Water Commission records, merits particular attention, she says.
Many tanneries moved to Leon from the United States to flee "union problems and environmental problems," says Peter Drexel, technical director of Newark, New Jersey-based Atlas Refinery, a company that supplies specialty chemicals to the leather industry in the United States and Mexico. "Leon is a notorious area with maybe 100 very small tanneries that are unable to afford to have screening procedures and secondary water treatment and slush treatment. These products really are getting out into the atmosphere and water and birds are definitely able to pick it up."
Waldo Kallenberger, of the Leather Industries of America research lab at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, says chromium does not bioaccumulate and "it would take an incredible scenario" for chromium to cause a massive bird-kill. When asked if a chromium-producing plant would qualify for such a scenario, Kallenberger says, "That would do it. With chrome ore processing you always have a lot of dirt, slag, ore - whatever you want to call it - that gets thrown out of the kiln and just piles up; all it takes is rain to leach the [remaining hexavalent chromium] out of it," he says. "A huge chromium spill from a processor could potentially kill things."
Dr. Juan Hernández, founder of Latin Industrial Chemical, a Leon plant that produces leather lubricants, is even more skeptical about chromium's role. The Cincinnati-trained chemist says he personally analyzed site water samples after the kill and found no trace of chromium. "I think it was some kind of pesticide," he says. Hernández says Central Chemical of Mexico is one the few area plants that treats its effluent.
Birds without a country
The fact that the poisoned water birds, including egrets, sandpipers, coots and ducks, began their last migration in Canada and the United States illustrates the need for a trans-border environmental authority "to protect migratory animals such as birds, marine turtles and whales," Aridjís says. "It is not enough for them to be protected in one country if they are entombed in another." Aridjís questions, however, if the new commission will wield enough authority to meaningfully shield the environment from industry. "This will be the first test of how the commission will function: if it is a window dressing for commercial free trade or if it really has significance," he says.
Aridjís says most media reports on the De Silva Reservoir falsely suggest that the threat is limited to wildlife. "This is a zone inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom draw their drinking water from the river," he says. "In towns close to the dam, people have skin infections, gastrointestinal infections and have been systematically poisoned. Yet the health authorities have not done any investigation of this either."
Despite concerns among some CEC petitioners that the Mexican government may be shielding industrial polluters with the endosulfan theory, the petitioners were not as tough as they could have been on the Mexican government. Their petition invokes Article 13 of the environmental side agreement to NAFTA, urging the CEC to focus international attention on the problem and to try to drum up resources to identify and pay for a solution. Under the tougher Article 14, the petitioners could have asserted that the Mexican government failed to enforce its environmental laws, a procedure that requires the government to respond in formal written reports.
Describing Article 14 as an "adversarial procedure," Minette says Audubon did not want to charge the Mexican government with failing to enforce its laws since the government has tried to reduce area pollution through a voluntary government-industry program, the Turbio Basin Initiative, named after a river that flows from Leon into area reservoirs.
Spokesperson Vincent says the CEC formed a tri-national advisory panel in early July to study the problem. The panel has interviewed environmental, industry and government sources and hopes to submit a report by the end of August, she says. The purpose of the report is to identify the source of the problem, outline ways to address it and suggest sources of funding for remediation, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The report will only be made public if a majority of the three NAFTA signatory governments vote to release it.
The CEC has no enforcement powers, relying instead on public pressure, Vincent acknowledges. "If the report makes recommendations and Mexico doesn't follow them, we can't do anything," she says. Asked if CEC's mandate recognizes the principle that polluters should pay the costs to clean up messes they make, Vincent says, "We don't advocate one ecological theory or another."
- Andrew Wheat
Perdue> farms poultry plant workers - most of whom are African-Americans - witnessed a cross-burning on June 14, 1995 outside their Dothan, Alabama plant gates. Describing the racist event as a "horrible act of intolerance and intimidation," the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) said in a June 16 press release that an anti-union committee lead by plant supervisors organized the event.
LIUNA accuses the anti-union committee of "a pattern of harassment and intimidation for four weeks in its effort to defeat the organizing drive" at the plant. Arthur Coia, LIUNA general president, called the cross-burning "outright terrorism." The union filed charges with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging "hundreds of incidents of lawbreaking by Perdue management."
In its brief to the NLRB, LIUNA charges Perdue with promising workers new medical and life insurance benefits "in exchange for withholding or withdrawing their support" for the union. The union also claims that Perdue management hired a worker to disrupt union meetings and videotaped and threatened to fire employees working with union organizers.
LIUNA spokesperson John Jordan, who worked on the organizing effort, accuses the anti-union committee of obstructing union leafletting efforts in front of the plant, which employs 1,100 people.
The union was defeated on June 15 in a vote of 646 to 242.
A June 29 union vote at a Lewiston, North Carolina Perdue Farms plant was also defeated. And a third union representation vote, held July 13 at Perdue's Robersonville, North Carolina plant, was defeated by a margin of three to one. It will also be contested by LIUNA before the NLRB, Jordan says.
No fox in the hen house
Salisbury, Maryland-based Perdue Farms Inc. is the fourth largest poultry producer in the United States, employing 13,500 people and operating eight processing plants in the U.S. mid-Atlantic and South. No Perdue Farms plant has ever been organized by a union, LIUNA spokesperson Jordan says.
"Perdue Farms is non-union, and proud of it" says Jordan. "There are just a litany" of anti-union activities by Perdue. Particularly apparent - most recently during union organizing activities at Perdue's Robersonville plant - are company attempts to generate unionization fears among workers, says Jordan.
"It's amazing how much stuff [the company] throws at people to poison the well," says Jordan. In one work-time Robersonville meeting, anti-union supervisors told workers that all union meetings would be compulsory, so that union members would "be grabbed if they were sitting in church and made to go to the meeting." During the meetings, workers were shown videos about "a black man in a Cadillac who would lose his Cadillac to pay his union dues," Jordan says.
The unionization drive at Perdue follows complaints by workers regarding health concerns and working conditions at the company's plants. "I wish we could make Perdue listen to us," says one worker. "We could help them do a cleaner chicken."
Workers have sometimes objected to processing chickens "that do not smell like they should be processed," Jordan says. The line speed maintained at the plants prevents workers from screening chickens properly, he says. "They make us do nails [process 90 birds a minute]," says one Dothan worker. "There ain't no way we can catch all the bad birds."
"A lot of bird goes out that people are a little iffy about," Jordan says. "To counter this, management has workers dip the chickens in chlorine, leading to hand and respiratory problems" among employees.
Repetitive motion injuries are common, says Jordan. "Its incredible to see the number of workers with splints on their wrists. Processing anywhere from 60 to 90 birds a minute, doing the same thing over and over again, really does a number on you."
Perdue public relations consultant Richard Aulatta will not comment on specific charges. "One day it would be nice if when a union lost an election they would say that the employees just didn't want the union instead of coming up with all sorts of reasons for why they lost," he says. "LIUNA calling Perdue corrupt is a little bit like the pot calling the kettle black."
- Craig Forcese