Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Seventeen:

Corporate Self-Regulation: A Case History


Can private industries regulate themselves, or is government regulation necessary if the public interest is to be protected and served in a free-enterprise economy?

It is a fundamental dogma of the regressive right that government regulation of business is not only unnecessary, but is a positive hindrance to optimal corporate performance. For the past quarter century, “deregulation” has been the keyword of the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations, and the right insists that we are all the better for it – the public as well as the private sector. We are assured that a corporation’s proper regard for its reputation, along with the constant threat of law suits from potentially aggrieved competitors and citizens, suffice to keep the industry in check. Furthermore, with the relaxation of regulation, corporations have willingly and successfully accepted the responsibility of “policing” their own behavior.

That’s the claim. But is it true?

For seven years, I had the opportunity to scrutinize that claim as it pertains to the chemical industry, as a member of the “Public Advisory Panel” of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (later re-named The American Chemistry Council).

Simply stated, my conclusion from that experience is that corporate self-regulation can benefit the public and that it might partially achieve the results otherwise obtained by government regulation. But “partial success” is not enough – not even remotely -- for it leaves open opportunities for corporate abuses at the expense of the public.  The chemical industry's tepid commitment to "responsible care" was indicated by the abolition of the Public Advisory Panel in 2000, and of its short-lived successor, the so-called "Leadership Dialog," in 2006.

If the public at large is to be served and protected from corporate abuses, government regulation is essential.

The Chemical Manufacturer’s "Responsible Care®” program -- a brief history:

On December 3, 1984, a worker at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India turned a "wrong" valve, allowing water into a tank of methyl isocyanate. The resulting explosion released some 40 tons of gas into the atmosphere, resulting in at least 2000 and perhaps more than 5000 fatalities, and from 10,000 to 200,000 serious injuries. (The lesser figure is from Union Carbide, the larger figure from the Indian government).

While Bhopal was the worst industrial disaster in recent history, it followed numerous other incidents, including the release of dioxin at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy in 1976, and the discovery in 1978 of toxic waste beneath a housing development at Love Canal (New York), Times Beach (Missouri) and Carver Terrace (Arkansas).  (See Chapter Nine).

Because of these and other incidents, including the industry's well-publicized public relations campaigns against such environmental reformers as Rachel Carson, by the late 1980s, the level of public trust in the chemical industry was alongside that of the tobacco industry, near the bottom of the list of business enterprises,

The Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), the trade association of the chemical industry, felt that some dramatic initiatives would have to be taken to restore public confidence in the industry. As industry leaders remarked at the time, "if we don't clean up our act, then the government will." Following the lead of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association, in 1988 the CMA launched a program called "Responsible Care®," and in the following year established a Public Advisory Panel. (The organization was named “Chemical Manufacturers Association throughout the life of the Public Advisory Panel. In 2001 it changed its name to “The American Chemistry Council”).

In an informational brochure (December, 1996), the CMA states that Responsible Care® "requires [member] companies to: (a) continually improve their health, safety and environmental performance; (b) listen and respond to public concerns; ( c) assist each other to achieve optimum performance; and (d) report their progress to the public." The brochure continues: "Two aspects of Responsible Care make it unique. First, CMA member companies must participate in Responsible Care as an obligation of membership in the Association. And second, through a Public Advisory Panel, the public is directly involved in shaping the initiative."1 (My emphasis, EP.)

Personal Reflections of a CMA/ACC Panel Member

I was invited to join the Public Advisory Panel in 1994, and met with the Panel for the first time in August, 1994, in Sarnia, Ontario (directly across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan). This was a typical meeting, unique only in the respect that it was held jointly with the Panel of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association. We toured some local chemical plants, were given presentations by local and national industry officials, and engaged in several hours of free-flowing discussions, unattended by industry personnel.

For the next two years, the Panel met four times a year – twice in Washington, DC, and twice at a chemical industry facility, and generally for three days. After 1996 the meetings were reduced in frequency to three times a year and in duration to two days.

The Panel meetings were skillfully facilitated by a Toronto firm, contracted by the CMA/ACC. The facilitators presided over the discussions, gathered and recorded the opinion of the Panel members, prepared summary reports of the meetings, and assisted in the writing of Panel documents. At no time did the facilitators express their own opinions regarding agenda issues. Their integrity was above reproach.

Panel members were chosen by the CMA/ACC, with no advisory input from the existing Panel. Plant tours were conducted by the plant managers, and the agenda and presenters were selected by the CMA/ACC. The Panel functioned without an independent research budget or staff, other than the facilitators.

I will not elaborate on the content of the Panel meetings, since a "Valedictory Message" that the Panel prepared in July, 2001, gives a good summary of our work, our accomplishments, and our complaints. (That message can be accessed through the internet, here).  However, some general impressions might well be in order.

The corporate initiators and implementers of Responsible Care deserve all the credit that they are due – and that credit is considerable. At our meetings we were shown (and I have no reason to doubt) statistics indicating significant reductions of industrial accidents and toxic releases. Numerous chemical facilities throughout the nation established "CAPS" – Community Advisory Panels – actively involving community leaders and citizens in the implementation and supervision of the Responsible Care® program.

The plant facilities that we visited were also impressive. To the best of my recollection, at none of the score of large chemical manufacturing plants that I visited did I encounter the sort of pervading "chemical odor" that one might have expected. At the Dow facility in Midland, Michigan, and the DuPont plant near Victoria, Texas, the water "outflows" were so clean that they fed wetland wildlife preserves, set aside by the industries. I was equally impressed by the dedication of several senior corporate executives and plant managers to the Responsible Care® ethic. In fact, the Panel came to sense that many of the executives and plant managers of the member corporations were well ahead of the CMA officers in their commitment to "Responsible Care."

However, the Panel was not favorably impressed with all representatives of CMA organizations. In particular, I vividly remember a presentation by an official of the Chlorine Chemistry Council in Charleston, West Virginia. He was warned beforehand not to give the standard "Rotary Club PR Spiel" to the Panel. "This is a tough group," he was told. He found this out when he chose to disregard that warning, whereupon the Panel pushed aside the PR fluff and asked tough questions, which the poor presenter was ill-prepared to answer.

Each year, the panel composed a "letter" to the CMA which was published in its Annual Report, and each year (through 2000) a Panel member was selected to give a presentation to the Annual April meeting of the Association (usually in Orlando, Florida). We endeavored to make these messages and presentations as positive and upbeat as good conscience would allow. But we never doubted that we owed the CMA our candor. Each year, our primary concern was about "responsible advocacy" – our euphemism for lobbying and public relations. We were especially concerned about reports (gained from "outside sources") that soon after the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, CMA and industry officials had met privately with GOP congressional leaders and had virtually written their "revision" to the Clean Water Act. We did not hesitate to express these concerns to the CMA.

In the late nineties, the Panel came to sense that the CMA's enthusiasm for its Public Advisory Panel was beginning to wear thin. As noted above, beginning in 1997 our meetings were reduced in frequency to three a year and in duration to two days. Less often were we presented with proposals and work-in-progress for our "advisory" opinions, and more often we were given reports of settled policy. Especially vexing was the presenters' habit of handing out copies of reports, published weeks and months earlier and then commenting on these items, thus denying us the opportunity to read them beforehand. Throughout, we continued to express our candid concern about CMA "advocacy" practices – i.e., lobbying and public relations.

Probably the most important cause of the Panel's eclipse took place "in the background," beyond the influence of the Panel itself. The "pioneer" corporate executives who established and sustained Responsible Care were retiring and leaving the scene, and were being replaced by a more politically active, profit-oriented, and institutionally defensive corps of officers. The "public commitment" proclaimed by Responsible Care was slowly but inexorably being replaced by the Milton Friedman rule: "The social responsibility of business to increase profits."2

And so, when the Chemical Manufacturers Association officially decided, in its April, 2000 meeting, to change its name to "The American Chemistry Council" (announced June 8) and to adopt the slogan, "Good Chemistry Makes it Possible," the Panel was (typically by now) presented with a fait accompli. Even so, the Panel did not hesitate to express its displeasure with the name and slogan change. "Chemical Manufacturers Association," we felt, precisely described the organization, while "American Chemistry Council" connoted an academic association (like the existing academic "American Chemical Society"). The Panel's response to the new slogan, "Good Chemistry Makes it Possible" bordered on the derisive. "Sounds like a resurrection of DuPont's old 'Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.'" "And just what is the antecedent of that ‘it.' Just what does ‘good chemistry' make possible?" And so on. We were later to discover (sans consultation) that the Responsible Care slogan of "A Public Commitment" was to be replaced with "Good Chemistry at Work."

Though we may not have fully realized it at the time, that meeting quite possibly sealed the fate of the Public Advisory Panel of the (now) American Chemistry Council. Those name and slogan changes were no doubt the result of expensive and extensive public opinion and focus-group studies. Ours was not the response that ACC had hoped for.

Our next meeting was in Arlington, Virginia, in late October, 2000 (the date may be significant). At the close of that meeting, we were advised that "ACC is re-evaluating its public dialogue processes, including the Public Advisory Panel." We were also told that a continuation of the Panel was a distinct possibility, and that we would be informed individually by phone of the Council's decision in mid-November.

We can only speculate about the deliberations of the Council concerning the future of the Panel. However, the timing of the decision in the light of subsequent events makes such speculation irresistible. Was the Panel and Responsible Care®, "window dressing" designed to give the industry the public appearance of responsibility? If so, then the Panel would be more useful to the Council in the event of a Gore victory and Democratic Congress, and a consequent threat of government oversight and regulation.. But if Bush and the Republicans brought in an administration and Congress much more friendly to the industry, then ACC could adopt a posture more along the lines of William Vanderbilt: "the public be damned, I work for my stockholders."

If so, the issue of the continuation of the Public Advisory Panel turned on the results of the Presidential election the following week, whereupon ACC, as promised, would phone its decision to the Panel members. Trouble is, a funny thing happened on the way to that decision. The election was not decided until a month later, December 12, by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. A couple of days after the Supreme Court ruled, we received our phone call: The Public Advisory Panel was toast.

Go figure!

At our final meeting in June, 2001, we were told that a new panel would be selected that would interact directly with the ACC President. On "deep background" a list of names of possible members was read to us (which, of course, I can not repeat) -- "the sort of high-profile and prestigious individuals that we are seeking for this group." The ACC was vague about its plans and timing for "the new Panel," which was to be called the “Leadership Dialogue.”  (More about the "Leadership Dialog" shortly [pending]).

Try as it might, the ACC was unlikely to gather a finer group of individuals than those who served on the now-defunct Public Advisory Panel. This collection of scholars, engineers, scientists, environmental and consumer activists, and community leaders carried out their voluntary service with energy, intelligence, dedication and integrity. They felt that they owed the Council nothing more than their attention, their judgment, and their candor, which, it appears, was more than the Council was willing to tolerate. Honorable mention is also due to the Panel's facilitators, who conducted our meetings with consummate skill and patience, never intruding their own opinions and biases, and with full independence from the ACC.

In their "Valedictory Message," the Panel wisely chose to ignore speculations regarding the successor "Panel" or the political motives of the ACC. Such speculations are superfluous in the face of a much more troubling and verifiable indication of the decline of "Responsible Care – A Public Commitment:" namely, the Council's response to the issues of global warming, the testing of human subjects and chemical plant security, which I will discuss shortly.

At the final meeting in June, 2001, the panel members were invited to comment upon their experiences on the Panel and their concerns about the Responsible Care® program. In attendance was the ACC President and CEO, Frederick Webber, and several of the Council’s senior officers. The comments were not recorded or transcribed. However, I prepared beforehand the following statement, which I read at the meeting:

I joined the Panel seven years ago, with an open mind and a willingness to be persuaded by evidence that the industry could effectively accept the responsibility of self-regulation. During that time, I have been genuinely impressed by the sense of public responsibility that I have found among many industry officials. Nonetheless, I leave with renewed conviction in the necessity of persistent and circumspect governmental regulation of this industry as well as any other industry with a significant impact upon the larger populations of "stakeholders" who lack direct means to protect themselves from the "externalities" of business as usual.

Regulation can and should be a cooperative enterprise between private enterprise and public government. And industry, through regulation, gains the advantage of an explicit statutory guidance and a "floor" of acceptable behavior which eliminates, to the advantage of both industry and the public, the dangers of a competitive "race to the bottom" at the expense of the public interest.

Four decades of disparagement of "big government" have taken a heavy toll on the natural environment, on public health, and on citizen confidence in our public institutions. This reckless slander must now come to an end and be reversed. In a legitimate democratic polity, "government" is the appropriate watchdog of the public interest. True, in every government one can find "waste, fraud and abuse" – for no human institution is or can be perfect. But the remedy for poor government is better government, not the abolition of government or, worst of all, the privatization of government.. This truth is validated in the experience of every civilized society.

Accordingly, the ACC's advocacy must become less private and tied to campaign finance, and become more public and dependent upon rational argument and scientific evidence. If this comes about due to ACC initiative, then the Council will deserve the gratitude and admiration of all citizens. If, on the other hand, an enlightened legislature must impose upon industry a regime of advocacy by means of public debate and free of financial influence, then so be it.

More than any other industry, the chemical industry is science-based. Thus industry policy and practice should be expected to yield to the weight of scientific evidence. Forty years ago, with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the industry faced the test – and failed it. The response of the Chemical industry to the Bhopal disaster – the establishment of the Responsible Care initiative – stands as a monument of corporate responsibility to the public. But the industry's commitment to that initiative appears to have eroded with time.

Now there is a new test issuing from a world-wide scientific consensus regarding the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere – the issue of global warming. Sadly, the public pronouncements of the ACC seem to indicate that the Council has failed this test as well.

Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong in this opinion. Be that as it may, the responsibility of the industry in the face of global warming is as clear and unequivocal as the scientific consensus.

As this Panel ends its association with American Chemistry Council, I am reminded of the remark of Elena Bonner to Mikhail Gorbachev, at the funeral of Bonner's husband, Andrei Sakharov: "I pity you, for you have lost an honest critic."

I urge ACC to scrupulously select, in our successors, critics who will be equally honest.

President Webber, in his reply, expressed his disappointment that seven years of association with CMA/ACC had utterly failed to convert me to his cherished belief that the chemical industry was fully capable of regulating itself and fulfilling its public responsibility without “interference” from the government.

Unfortunately, the Council’s response to Global Warming, and subsequent to the Panel’s demise, the Council’s behavior regarding the testing of human subjects and chemical plant security, validated my conclusion as these issues indicated a diminished public responsibility and a failure of self-regulation on the part of the ACC.

The Decline and Demise of "Responsible Care" -- 2001-2006.

[In preparation]


The American Chemistry Council and Global Warming

In its "Valedictory Message," the Panel noted "with disappointment the failure of the Council to respond appropriately to the prospect of global climate change, brought about by the release of ‘greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere. In view of the overwhelming scientific validation of this grave threat to the global environment and to the welfare of future generations, the Panel urges the Council to reconsider its policy and to join the coordinated efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations and the scientific community to counteract this global threat."

In view of the abundance of public relations fog that has recently been generated over the issue of global warming, it would be useful to review the weight of scientific opinion on the issue.

The Scientific Consensus: In January, 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations consortium of more than two thousand scientists, published its third report. The IPCC report concluded, with 90% confidence, that by 2100, average global temperatures will rise between 2.3 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Commenting on this report, seventeen of the world's scientific academies stated:

The work of the IGCC represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognize the IPCC as the world's most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified... The balance of the scientific evidence demands effective steps now to avert damaging changes to Earth's climate.3

Responding to the IPCC report, Donald Kennedy, editor of Science (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) wrote:

The scientific consensus on global warming is so strong that it leaves little room for the defensive assertions that keep emerging from the cleverly labeled industrial consortium called the Global Climate Coalition and from a shrinking coterie of scientific skeptics... [Scientific] consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science... [T]here is little room for doubt about the seriousness of the problem the world faces...4

At the request of the Bush administration, the National Academy of Sciences prepared a report which "summed up science's current understanding of global climate change." That report effectively added the United States to the list of international scientific academies, as the NAS committee wrote: "the conclusion of the IPCC that the global warming that has occurred in the last 50 years is likely the result of increases in greenhouse gases accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community."5

ACC Policy on Global Warming: The response of the American Chemistry Council to these scientific studies and reports has been inappropriate and disappointing.

At my request for information, the staff of the Council sent me a copy of a letter from ACC President Frederick Webber to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, dated April 26, 2001. In addition, I personally asked an ACC Vice President, face-to-face, for information regarding the Council's response to the IPCC and NAS reports, and the Council's support and endorsement of the Global Climate Coalition (an advocacy group supported primarily by the petroleum and coal industries). I was told that "this will be discussed at our meeting tonight." It was not. And so I followed up with an e-mail request to that same individual. That message was never answered. Accordingly, I have had to rely upon media and NGO sources for additional information regarding the Council's position on global warming.

In his letter to Sec .Abraham, ACC President Webber reported that the ACC is actively promoting "voluntary programs" among its members to "contribute to shared national and industry goals ... specifically improved energy efficiency and strengthened international competitiveness; conservation of energy resources; and, reduction of energy-related and other greenhouse gas emission." Despite this promising beginning, the remainder of the letter is not reassuring. There is no further mention of energy conservation. Instead, the letter calls for (a) the "use of all available and proven energy sources," (b) the removal of "regulatory barriers to safe and reliable energy," (c) "encouragement of voluntary action," and (d) further study. Missing from that letter is any reference to the IPCC report (released in January, 2001), the Kyoto Treaty, or proposals for federal or international regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

From sources outside the Council, I have learned that the ACC "pushed to kill the carbon cap" on power plant emissions.6 Also, I have learned that the ACC was, for a time, a contributor to the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a group funded by the coal and petroleum industries, and described (above) by Science Editor (and former Presidential Science Advisor) Donald Kennedy as a "cleverly labeled industrial consortium." To its credit the ACC discontinued support of the GCC in [???]. [Hard documentation of this association between the ACC and GCC is not immediately at hand. The GCC website did not list its sponsors and contributors. My numerous requests for documentation have been unanswered].

Learning from Past Mistakes: In 1963, the Manufacturing Chemists Association (predecessor to the Chemical Manufacturers Association and later the American Chemistry Council) launched a public relations campaign to counteract public and governmental reaction to the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Eventually, ongoing scientific research combined with public opinion and governmental regulation overwhelmed this industry effort, as DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides were phased out of commercial use.7

In our meetings with the staff of the American Chemistry Council and with leaders of its member companies, the Panel repeatedly heard admissions by these individuals that the response of the chemical industry to "Silent Spring" was a colossal blunder. Indeed, the "Responsible Care" program, we were told, was established, in part, to ensure that such a mistake would never happen again.

Regrettably, it is now apparent to this former Panel member that, in the face of an even greater challenge, the Council is well-embarked upon a course which will repeat that past mistake.

Global Warming and "Responsible Care:  In my opinion, "Responsible Care" means nothing if it does not entail "careful stewardship" of the planetary life-support mechanisms, and "responsible concern" for the welfare of future generations.

"Responsible Care" toward the common atmosphere and future generations may well exact sacrifices in the immediate future and curtail private-sector prosperity in the short term. But the weight of scientific evidence combined with the long-term perspective of human and biotic history together lead to an inescapable moral conclusion: industrial civilization must act collectively and decisively to halt and reverse this global threat, brought about by human industrial activity. For in the long run, there can be no prosperity on a ruined planet.

Frederick Webber’s proposals in his letter to Secretary Abraham – de-regulation, "voluntary action," continuing use of "all available energy sources," and continuation of "business as usual" while we await the results of "further study" -- are all inappropriate responses to the global emergency which is now upon us.

If the American Chemistry Council persists in its effort to persuade the public and the government of the United States to delay appropriate action in the face of global climate change, it may or may not succeed. What it can not change are the facts of atmospheric chemistry and physics which continue to strengthen the already overwhelming scientific case for global concern and global action.

In the face of these facts, the responsibility of the American Chemistry Council is clear, and contrary to its current course of action.

The CHEERS Study: The Testing of Human Subjects:

In October, 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the “Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study,” with the beguiling acronym, CHEERS. The EPA solicited the participation of sixty families in Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida. In addition to residency in Duval County, the participants had to be parents of a child under the age of 13 months, and were required to “maintain [their] normal pesticide or non-pesticide use patterns” in the study.8 Participating families were to be given stipends of $970 and an assortment of promotional items, including video cameras.

Not mentioned in the program announcement was the participation of the American Chemistry Council, which agreed to contribute $2 million of the $9 million cost of the study.

The announcement was met with vehement condemnation by several public interest groups and media commentators. As a result, implementation of the CHEERS study was suspended the next month, and eventually cancelled in April 8, 2005.9

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported these concerns by some EPA scientists:

  • Financial Incentives (noted above).

  • Lack of Treatment. The study makes no provision for intervening if infants or toddlers show signs of developmental problems or register alarmingly high exposure levels in their urine samples. Instead, families continue in the study so long as researchers are notified when each pesticide application occurs

  • Lack of Education. Unlike other EPA programs in this area, the study does not provide participants information about the safe or proper ways to apply or store pesticides around the home. Nor does the study furnish participating families with information about the risks of prolonged or excessive exposure to pesticides.

So why would the EPA propose such a study? PEER put forth the following suggestions:

  • Pesticide companies want infant exposure levels so that EPA will be forced to drop its rules requiring that pesticide exposures to small children be nearly ten times more protective;

  • EPA wants to use CHEERS as the opening for a new policy on accepting testing on humans to determine pesticide toxicity. The Bush Administration will soon announce a repeal of the Clinton-era rules against testing pesticides on humans.

  • Through direct contributions, corporations are now influencing EPA research. The American Chemistry Council, which contributed $2 million to CHEERS, also successfully lobbied to include exposure to flame retardants and other household chemicals in the study. EPA now has 80 similar research agreements with industries, universities and local governments.

The Network of Concerned Farmers has additional suspicions as to the reason for the ACC’s support of the CHEERS study:

The trick here is that these products are known to have negative long term health effects. This is a short two year study. In other words, the results of he study are already known...there will be little to no obvious short term negative effects on these children at the end of the two year period. The seemingly positive results of the study will allow the ACC to announce positive "EPA study results" to the public, which will allow the ACC to more effectively lobby Congress to weaken regulations on these products even more (thereby increasing profits dramatically). This technique has been exercised by the ACC for decades.11

While this is an interesting speculation, it must remain just that, absent additional documented evidence.

Even so, one must wonder why the EPA, with a research budget of over half a billion dollars, would need, much less accept, two million dollars from an industry association, an interested party to the study to say the least.

The immediate postponement and eventual cancellation of the CHEERS study was doubtlessly due to the scientific and public outcry against it, including significant opposition from within the EPA. From this we can conclude that “Responsible Care” was probably not foremost in the minds of the ACC decision makers when they agreed to sign on to the CHEERS study with their $2 million “contribution.”

Plant Security:

Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Sen. John Corzine of New Jersey introduced the “Chemical Security Act” which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to take responsibility for chemical plant security. The bill was immediately and unanimously approved by all nineteen members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The chemical industry, led by the ACC, would have none of it. Says Corzine, “my bill was crushed by the American Chemistry Council. It was crushed by those who were looking after their private interests and not the public interests.”12

The National Environmental Trust reports:

The calculated assault on that legislation – and all subsequent attempts to improve our chemical security – exposes the dangerous ties between a $450 billion chemical industry and our nation's lawmakers. ...

With Corzine’s bill destined for a floor vote, the chemical industry united to undermine it. Thirty industry groups sent a joint-letter to members of the United States Senate; 29 of them combined to spend over $17 million lobbying in 2001 alone. (Senate Office on Public Records)

This letter found a receptive audience on the hill: “According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group … the chemical manufacturing industry has given $11 million [in campaign contributions since September 11] -- 78 percent of it to Republicans.”14  In a sudden change, seven senators whom had previous voted for Corzine’s bill wrote another letter to their colleagues, asking them to help defeat it.

“A study on the shanking of the Corzine bill by Common Cause [writes Salon’s Jake Tapper], reported that six of the senators plus two others who wrote letters opposing the bill -- Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala. -- have received more than $850,000 from the [American Chemistry Council] and its member companies.”15

The administration’s failure to address chemical security is not surprising given their close ties to industry: “Fred Webber, the ACC's president and CEO, went to the Senate to decry Corzine's bill. Webber … raised more than $100,000 for the presidential campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush as a "pioneer.” (Salon, op. cit) Webber is only one of ten Bush “pioneers” with ties to the chemical industry, which has given the president approximately $1.2 million since 1999.16

Millions of Americans were made dramatically aware of the public danger from insecure chemical plants in November, 2003, when 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft, reported his visits to “dozens of plants in major metropolitan areas that could put more than a million people at risk in the event of a terrorist attack.” Kroft reports, “we found gates unlocked or wide open, delapidated fences and unprotected tanks filled with deadly chemicals...”17  In one especially chilling scene, Kroft and investigative reporter, Carl Prine, walked up to a tank of boron triflouride – “a particularly nasty gas.” Had they been terrorists carrying a satchel charge, the fatalities in the Pittsburgh area might well have totaled six figures.18

Clearly, voluntary security measures on the part of the chemical industry were insufficient, to say the least. And the ACC’s successful lobbying against Senator Corzine’s “Chemical Security Act” was not in the public interest. Once again, the public was not “responsibly cared for” by the ACC and the chemical industry.

Summing Up.

To begin, I would re-iterate that the chemistry industry executive and managers that I met were, by and large, decent, principled and well-intentioned people. I would be pleased to have them as my neighbors, however unlikely given our respective financial circumstances.

However, my association with the CMA/ACC has strengthened my conviction that unregulated commerce systematically corrupts those both involved in such enterprises and government, as it works against the interest of the general public. The proven remedy for such corruption is a rule of law and a regulatory regime administered by the only institution with the moral legitimacy to act as an agent of the public at large; namely, a government “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.” Huge industrial and commercial corporations affect more than the employees and stockholders of these enterprises; they also affect, for both better and for worse, the public – the “stakeholders” – in the countries in which they operate. Accordingly, these stakeholders are entitled to a voice in the operations of enterprises that significantly affect their quality of life, and the appropriate agency to represent and act in behalf of those stakeholder interests is government.

Conversely, stakeholder interests cannot and must not be solely represented by “public advisory panels” appointed by, and operating at the convenience of, corporations or industry associations such as the American Chemistry Council.

This is not to say that such panels serve no useful purpose. The law and regulatory agencies define a “floor” of corporate behavior below which a company must not be allowed to go. But corporations and commercial associations that aspire to rise above these minimum requirements and that choose to engage in community service might usefully invite public input and advice through such panels. When government stipulates minimum standards of safety for workers and surrounding communities, industry might say, in effect, “that’s not good enough for us – we can do better.” And so, industry associations might establish programs such as CMA/ACC’s “Responsible Care,” and invite members of the community to advise the operation of such programs. Commendable!

Thus public and community advisory groups should surely count for something. But not for everything. They must not take the place of government agencies, for these advisory groups lack research budgets and facilities, they are without expert staff members, they can not investigate independently and conduct unannounced “spot” inspections, and they lack the power of enforcement and the sanctions of the law. For all this, the agency of government is required.

For let’s face it: in numerous and easily recognizable circumstances, corporate virtue (“responsible care”) is anti-competitive. Firms that pay their employees less have a competitive advantage. So too firms that reduce production costs by “externalizing” those costs through pollution and lax safety standards. As Garrett Hardin put it, “conscience is self-eliminating,” and the result is a “race to the bottom,” as each firm, striving for advantage cuts internal costs by externalizing those costs at the expense of the workers, the public, the environment, and the future. Hardin’s solution, once again, is that of Thomas Hobbes: “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” – in other words: government.19

I will not deny that competition can lead to “a better mousetrap.” The computer with which I am writing this chapter would never have been developed without competitive free-enterprise. But neither would it have been developed without state-sponsored basic scientific research – both are necessary.   Unlike the regressives for which “the free market” is an unqualified good, progressives regard free enterprise competition as a mixed blessing, sometimes good and sometimes bad – these opposites best recognized and dealt with on a case-by-case basis. As we have noted, regressives are guided by dogma, while progressives are pragmatists, who prefer to be guided by experience and evidence.

“Good” competition must be encouraged and maintained by anti-trust laws – i.e., occasional interference from “big government.” “Bad” competition, which leads to pollution, exploitation of workers, dangerous products, community risks, must be regulated and, in extreme cases (e.g. the drug trade) outlawed.

We conclude as we began: voluntary corporate self-regulation, typified by the American Chemistry Council’s “Responsible Care” program, can and does work, and public input from advisory panels can contribute to the success of such initiatives. But corporate self-regulation can not work well enough. Self-regulation can not protect the good corporate citizen from the scoundrels, which means in turn, that it can not protect individual citizen stakeholders. For that we need government.

This simple fact is validated, both in the history of the United States, and in the experience of every democratic industrial country.  And if that is not enough, the brief history of the "Responsible Care
®" initiative of the American Chemistry Council stands as eloquent testimony to the insufficiency of voluntary corporate self-regulation.


1.     For a statement of the ten CMA "Guiding Principles of Responsible Care" follow this link.

2.     New York Times, September 13, 1970.

3.     Science, 18 May 2001, p. 1261.

4.     Science, 30 March 2001.

5.     National Academy of Sciences, June 6, 2001.

6.     Newsweek, March 26, 2001.

7.    John H. Cushman, "After ‘Silent Spring,' Chemical Industry Put Spin on All it Brewed," New York Times, March 26, 2001.

8.     This program announcement from the EPA website has now been withdrawn. (Formerly at www.epa.gov/cheers/basic.htm  . However, the EPA desk statement has been preserved by PEER here and the brochure, here.

9.     The cancellation notice is at the same website address as the original announcement of the study: www.epa.gov/cheers/basic.htm .

10.     Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: EPA and Human Testing: What is CHEERS.

11.     Network of Concerned Farmers: Monsanto & Bayer promote study exposing infants from low income families to toxic chemicals.

12.     CBS News: “US Plants : Open to Terrorists”.

13.     National Environmental Trust: Industry Sabotage of Chemical Security Measures,.

14.     “Concerns Rise Over Chemicals as Targets,” Boston Globe, June 1, 2004.

15.     Jake Tapper: "America's Achilles Heel,"  Salon, March 18, 2003.   See also: James V. Grimaldi and Thomas B. Edsall: “Across Federal Spectrum,” Washington Post, May 17, 2004

16.     “Security for Sale,” The Nation op-ed, September 17, 2004.

17.     CBS News, op. Cit.

18.    For more on chemical plant security, see Common Cause: “Chemical Reaction: Despite Terrorism Threat, Chemical Industry Succeeds in Blocking Federal Security Regulations.” And Niaz Dorry and Nityanand Jayaraman: “Chemical Industry vs. Public Interest: Redefining the Public Debate on Chemical security,” No More Bhopals Alliance, June, 2004.

19.     Garrett Hardin: “The Tragedy of the Commons,” op. Cit., 1246-7.



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .