The slurping sound at the bottom

The town of Berezniki in the Ural Mountains of Russia is home to more than 150,000 people. Built as a labor camp in the days of the USSR, the town sits directly on top of the mine shafts where millions of tons of potash were extracted. The proximity of the labor camp that became a city made it easy and cheap to get people to work. The potash is all gone. What remains hundreds of feet below the ground are caverns held up by pillars of salt. These columns are now dissolving and the mine shafts are caving in as an underground river flows through the empty spaces. Huge sink holes are opening up on the surface and buildings, streets, cars and rail lines are being swallowed up. The largest hole is called “The Grandfather” and is 340 yards wide and 430 yards long. It plunges right to the salt strata underneath the city–780 feet, or the equivalent of 50 stories, straight down.

In 1984 a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India leaked toxic pesticide gases into the air, killing 2000 people immediately and thousands more as the months passed. Internal Union Carbide documents indicate that the company knew the plant design was not safe, but built it anyway. There were no criminal convictions stemming from the leak until June 7, 2010, when eight former executives of the company’s Indian subsidiary were convicted of negligence. The men were sentenced two years in prison and fined 100,000 rupees, or $2,100.

The federal government, in part with taxpayer dollars, has been slowly demolishing Picher, Oklahoma after the EPA declared it the most hazardous Superfund site in America. The town is a mining town where lead and zinc were aggressively pulled from the earth for decades. The tailings left from refining the toxic ore still sit in mountainous piles around the town. Nearby rivers run red with acidic runoff. Before 1990, when the federal government paid residents to relocate, the children of Picher were found to have highly elevated levels of lead and zinc in their blood. The toxic effects of lead on children’s neurological development are well known.
For decades a Monsanto-owned factory in Anniston, Alabama which since the 1930s produced all the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) made in the US. The company dumped wastes into the town’s creek and in seeping, open pit landfills. When local residents and plant workers reported health problems ranging from skin rashes to cancers and death, their complaints went unanswered.  Thousands of pages of Monsanto documents –many stamped with warnings such as “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy”–show that for decades, the corporate giant knew the hazards and deliberately hid the problems to protect sales and profits. In February of 2002, Monsanto was found guilty of “negligence, wantonness, suppression of truth, nuisance, trespass, and outrage.” Under Alabama law, the rare claim of outrage requires conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.” The settlement of the case, however, included “no admissions of wrongdoing” by Monsanto which had by that time spun off the PCB company into an entity called Solutia. Robert Kaley, the environmental affairs director for Solutia, said in an interview just before the 2002 court ruling, “I’m really pretty proud of what we did. Was it perfect? No…But I think we mostly did what any company would do, even today.”
In all of these instances, the economic activity generated by the location of the mines or chemical factories was initially applauded by the surrounding communities. They were looking for jobs and a boost to the local economy. Increased prosperity was promised. Either safety regulations were lax or nonexistent, risks were unknown, or underestimated. Sometimes, the risks were known and companies and regulators deliberately lied to protect company profits and to deny liability.
These disasters, and thousands of others like them, disprove the idea that given a free hand, worker safety, environmental affects, and the common good will be ensured by the marketplace and businesses’ self interest. Disciples of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism maintain that an individual’s primary moral obligation is to achieve his own well-being and if everyone takes care of their own self-interest, society works. There has been a recent revival in this belief in “laissez faire” capitalism which maintains that a corporation would not knowingly defile the environment or harm it’s workers because it would not be in that company’s best interest to do so. Picher, Oklahoma, Bhopal, India, Anniston, Alabama, and Berezniki, Russia should make us question the validity of this argument.
The allure of short-term wealth blinds us to the long-term risk. The immediate benefits are easy to see. The costs which may not become apparent until many years in the future are difficult to imagine. Greed and self-interest often take precedence over safety and the lives of future generations. Ensuring that these interests are protected is the job of government and regulations.
Those who would give free reign to the companies pumping oil out of our beautiful state should read up on the messy history of resource exploitation around the world. Those who assume these companies have the long-term best interests of North Dakota in mind are neither studying history nor looking forward beyond the next 30 to 50 years. Our leaders should be putting regulations in place which are based on the reality of past mining and drilling disasters and which look forward to preserving the future for our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their children. Those who are reaping the biggest rewards for the current oil boom do not live here. They will not be living here when the last slurp of oil is sucked from the ground.
The disaster in Bhopal resulted in permanent environmental contamination and killed or made sick more than 547,000 people. Union Carbide’s former CEO, Warren Anderson, faces charges of culpable homicide in connection with the disaster, for which India has sought his extradition. He is considered a fugitive from justice for his refusal to return to India to face the charges. Anderson currently is enjoying a comfortable retirement splitting time between Long Island and Florida, playing golf and staying out of the limelight. To date, the U.S. government has done nothing to facilitate Anderson’s extradition. Union Carbide has never disclosed the makeup of the toxic gas.
Monsanto sold Solutia and with it, most of the liability for the PCB contamination in Anniston.
The owner of the mine in Berezniki, worth an estimated $9 billion and who lists his primary residence as Monaco, recently bought a penthouse apartment in Manhattan for the record price of 88 million dollars, far from the sink holes his company caused. Residents of Berezniki will most likely be relocated to another site at the expense of the Russian government.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains