December 2015 Archives

American consumer, environmental and worker protections aren't as strict as they should be. And they're getting even weaker, thanks to trade deals that put the profits of giant multinational corporations above our nation's laws.

For example, the World Trade Organization, threatening over a billion dollars' worth of sanctions against the United States if our lawmakers didn't comply with its demands, just forced Congress to strike down our country-of-origin meat labeling law, which informed shoppers of the nations where the livestock they intended to consume was born, raised and slaughtered.

Previously, the WTO has forced the US to abandon our Clean Air Act provisions regulating gas pollution standards at the urging of Venezuela and Mexico, change our auto fuel efficiency standards at the behest of the European Union, nullify the section of the Endangered Species Act protecting sea turtles from deadly shrimping practices at Malaysia's request, and prohibit the use of "dolphin-safe" labels on tuna after complaints from Mexico.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership contains even stronger language, meant to further eviscerate American consumer, environmental and worker protections, which are already at risk from the WTO, NAFTA, and our other existing trade deals. We need to repeal the deals we have, not ratify new ones!

Say No To TPP

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It's another average American evening, and there I am again, wandering the aisles of German-based grocery store Aldi. I begin to examine a package of bright red tomatoes, and intrigued by their unseasonable freshness, I begin to read the label. The vegetables, I discover, were grown in Mexico -- but distributed by a company headquartered in Ontario. Somewhat alarmed by this corporation's deliberate avoidance of the USA, I start examining other products around the store and the town, and discover the omnipresence of foreign goods. Walmart candy: the cherry balls were made in Canada and the peppermints originated south of the border. Canned fruit: the consumer is offered the comforting choice between Chinese and Mexican regulators. Apple juice: Argentina, China, and Turkey make their appearance frequently, but it seems unlikely Johnny Appleseed could find a buyer anytime soon. Silverware: It takes thirty minutes of reading the small print on the backs of tablespoons even to find tableware from Vietnam, and even longer to debate whether that's any safer than China or not. Tinfoil: "Made in America," but the generic brand admits using metal from Russia and the Reynolds Wrap package conveniently doesn't mention it. Even merchandise proudly sporting miniature American flags and other patriotic decorations is more often than not crafted from "imported materials."

Cheap, imported goods are commonplace and unavoidable, thanks to two factors -- international agreements such as NAFTA , which legalized and effectively sanctioned outsourcing, and common law decisions such as Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), which placed foreign companies completely out of the reach of US courts and regulators. Yet it still does not appear the U.S. government has learned its lesson.

Hence the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

According to its official website, the TPP "levels the playing field for American workers and American businesses, leading to more Made-in-America exports and more higher-paying American jobs here at home." But in reality, it opens the door to even more state-sanctioned outsourcing while providing no protections for sweatshop workers or enforceable environmental requirements. Therefore, we at PlanetGreen.org take a firm stand against it, and, in our "Say No to TPP" series," will explore the terms of the agreement not as they are conveniently summarized by the government but as they will affect our everyday lives and our collective strength and growth as a nation.
A West Virginia jury just found former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship guilty of a conspiracy to violate safety standards, but exonerated him from several other charges. Blankenship was only convicted of a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of $250,000 and a year in jail (sentencing will not occur until next March). This is a ridiculously insufficient punishment. What's $250,000 to a man worth hundreds of millions? And, until Blankenship and his fellow coal industry culprits are truly held accountable, how can we expect them to stop their illegal and devastating practices?

In 2010, a coal dust explosion -- the worst mining accident since 1970 -- at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners. Prior to the explosion, the mine had been cited for over 1,300 safety violations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but Blankenship dismissed concerns, stating in an interview that safety violations are "a normal part of the mining process." Accordingly, he faced charges of security fraud, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and defrauding the federal government, in addition to the conspiracy indictment.

Massey Energy has been guilty of a myriad of environmental crimes, in addition to their disregard for workers' safety. As of 2010, it was the biggest perpetrator of mountaintop removal mining, an extremely deleterious practice, and has been careless with its toxic coal ash since the 1980s. Massey's irresponsible practices have contaminated much of West Virginia's groundwater, causing sickness, cancer and birth defects. According to the environmental site PolluterWatch, Blankenship has long "consider[ed] environmental regulations 'as silly as global warming,' of which he is an avid denier."

Despite its inadequacy, the jury's verdict is significant because it marks one of the first times that a leading figure in the coal industry has been held legally responsible for wrongdoing. However, it underscores the necessity of increasing the penalties for these heinous offenses -- and of actually enforcing them.
pic.jpgRecently, the Northern District of Ohio has been the scene of the latest segment in a drawn-out and well-publicized corporate liability saga. Michael Abrams and his fellow plaintiffs live in close proximity to a welding plant operated by Nucor Steel Marion, and allege that manganese from the plant has landed on their property. They further claim that this phenomenon has devalued their homes and potentially jeopardized their health, and are suing for trespass and private nuisance.

This and other similar cases against the welding industry have been plagued by rumors and allegations of bribery, champerty, and other forms of corruption on the part of plaintiffs or their counsel -- under-the-table behaviors which landed one renowned trial lawyer in prison for six years and thrust the issues into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. But though the plaintiffs' misconduct might distract from the defendant's chemicals, it doesn't change the fact that corporations are not legally allowed to strew hazardous materials all over their neighbors' yards.

Sadly, the facts of this case are not unusual. The only newsworthy thing about it is that Nucor has somehow managed, despite established case law providing for its incontestable liability, to convince the District that the facts are even at issue.

This tradition of general responsibility to the public began in 1863, with the British decision in Byrne v. Boadle, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (Exch. 1863). In that case, Byrne was walking down the street when a barrel of flour fell from the second-story window of a shop and struck him. At trial, the shop's proprietor, Boadle, argued that there was no proof a negligent act of his employees caused the barrel to fall out the window and therefore no sufficient evidence existed for Byrne to recover against him. This notion was rejected: as the court put it, "res ipsa loquitur, " or "the facts speak for themselves." (The irony of coining a Latin phrase to say that was obviously lost on the solemn, bewigged judges of the day). This was subsequently established in American law, and has since been instrumental in holding companies from Buick to Coca-Cola to some standard of care.

Fifteen-letter, dead-language, respectable words for "duh" aside, there is also the older and more specific doctrine that a party is absolutely liable for injury he even indirectly causes his neighbors. Since Roman times, the escape of wild animals (such as lions or bears) was held to be the fault of the creature's owner; this was extended to dams and retention ponds in the landmark 1868 case of Rylands v. Fletcher, and applied to other unorthodox forms of trespass over the first half of the twentieth century. It is hard to believe that rules this basic and well-known would fail to cover the spreading of deleterious metals into the lawns, water, and air of ordinary neighborhoods.

Yet, in the twenty-first century, Abrams v. Nucor Steel Marion remains an unexceptional, undecided case.

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