Along with environmentalists and community activists, big business has descended upon Johannesburg, South Africa, to tout its own "green" growth strategies in the summit on Earth-friendly development. But if the environmental record of one key corporate player is any indication, the overtures are pure "greenwash."
Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss, has fought environmental regulation of business since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when he founded the Business Council for Sustainable Development, a coalition of 160 international companies including AOL Time Warner, AT&T, Bayer, BP, Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical.
The council, attending this week's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, insists on voluntary self-regulation, a strategy supported by the Bush administration.
But the Schmidheiny family-controlled international cement conglomerate Holcim has done more than fail at self-regulation. Even while its U.S. plants have been fined repeatedly for environmental violations, it has worked to weaken restrictions on cement production emissions internationally.
Holcim (formerly Holderbank Financiere Glaris Ltd., based in Switzerland) owns 15 U.S. cement factories that do $1.2 billion in business per year. In August, Holcim's Midlothian, TX, plant was fined $223,125 by state regulators for violating limits on pollution, including toxic carbon monoxide, lung-damaging soot and smog-causing compounds.
A 1993 Environmental Protection Agency study reported that people living near cement plants may inhale harmful airborne dioxins, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, thallium, and lead at levels that might cause cancer or other diseases. Such emissions are especially dangerous to children, the elderly and people with heart and lung conditions.
Holcim had promised in 1997 that despite the expansion of the Texas plant, new technology would result in cleaner air. It was granted permits to double production.
But emissions went up, not down. Residents near the plant reported a high incidence of cancer as well as illnesses among farm animals. The pollution affected the entire Dallas-Ft. Worth region.
Local regulators said the plant had not installed equipment promised in the permit application, made changes that increased air pollution, and then lied in emissions reports for nine years.
They called Holcim a "high priority violator/significant non-complier."
Now, St. Lawrence Cement, a Canadian company controlled by Holcim, is seeking permission to build what may be the largest cement factory in the United States on the Hudson River in New York. Environmentalists say the plant's 404-foot stack would discharge respiratory disease-causing soot over a large part of the Hudson Valley.
The Schmidheiny family's concrete factories have a long history of environmental violations:
In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the Holnam Holly Hill Plant in South Carolina $838,850 for failing to comply with air emission standards. (Holcim's U.S. operation formerly was called Holnam, for Holderbank North America.)
Also in 1993, the Texas Air Control Board fined the Midlothian plant $135,000 after discovering emissions were about 50 percent higher than allowable.
In 1994, the company's Clarksville, Missouri, plant, which began burning hazardous waste in 1986, paid a $100,874 fine for violations ranging from failing to analyze waste to keeping waste in open containers.
In 1999, Iowa state officials found that the company failed to report excess emissions.
Also in 1999, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality fined the Holnam plant in Dundee $576,500 for emissions 7.5 times the allowable limits.
In 2000, the company was fined because a coal mill and dryer stack at its LaPorte, Colorado, plant was releasing twice as much pollution as permitted. Its Florence plant had failed air-pollution tests three times since 1996.
Holcim spokesman Tom Chizmadia the violations were not "willful" and that the company's "intent is to comply with all standards." Asked about the violations on record, Chizmadia said, "limits are set with an intention of protecting environment and health, and those limits are set very low."
Cement production air pollution became more dangerous after the EPA banned certain hazardous waste from landfills in 1985 and allowed it to be burned in cement kilns. Marti Sinclair, co-chair of environmental quality strategy for the Sierra Club, said that to avoid problems in cities with political influence and access to the media, Congress set a low population limit on places where waste could be burned. "Holnam went to the Deep South and started burning hazardous waste in Black communities in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina," she said.
Environmentalists say that the burning process releases into the air deadly dioxins and PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals that may cause birth defects, including mental and physical retardation.
The Business Council for Sustainable Development has picked the Johannesburg summit to argue its self-regulation position in a new book, "Walking the Talk," by Schmidheiny, Charles O. Holliday Jr., CEO of DuPont, and Philip Watts, chairman of the Royal Dutch Shell Group. Set for launching at the summit, the book maintains that multinationals have kept the commitments made in Rio.
Lucy Komisar is a freelance investigative reporter based in New York City.