Honeywell International, whose CEO is a member of President Obama's Bipartisan Deficit Reduction ("Cat Food") Commission, has pleaded guilty to knowingly storing hazardous radioactive waste without a permit, and has been sentenced in federal court to pay a criminal fine of $11.8 million.
While all eyes are on Japan's nuclear disaster, an eerily similar scenario born of corporate greed, union-busting, political influence peddling and safety shortcuts had been playing out for years in Metropolis, IL. Yes, that Metropolis: named after Superman's city and complete with a giant sized statue of Superman and all kinds of tourist- trappy accoutrements, including a newly-built memorial to the late actress who played Lois Lane on TV.
There's also a memorial to the workers of the Honeywell plant, where the Steelworkers' Union claims many of its members contracted cancer and died due to radiation exposure over the years. It is particularly telling, in this age of union demonization, that it was the steelworkers' local which blew the whistle on Honeywell executives for blatantly ignoring safety laws. The union, incidentally, was locked out of the plant by CEO David Cote last June after voicing its concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency finally listened, and prosecuted. (after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did nada.) The company entered its guilty plea on March 11, the same day as Japan's earthquake --and along with the fine (a drop in the bucket in Corporate World) was sentenced to five years' probation and some community service in the way of a recycling campaign in Metropolis. Neither Cote nor any other human was held criminally responsible.
Here are excerpts from the official Justice Department press release:
Honeywell, a Delaware corporation with corporate headquarters in Morristown, N.J., owns and operates a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion facility in Massac County, Ill., near the city of Metropolis and the Ohio River. Honeywell is licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Reulatory Commission to possess and otherwise manage natural uranium, which it converts into UF6 for nuclear fuel. The Metropolis facility is the only facility in the United States to convert natural uranium into UF6.At the Metropolis facility, air emissions from the UF6 conversion process are scrubbed with potassium hydroxide (KOH) prior to discharge. As a result of this process, KOH scrubbers and associated equipment accumulate uranium compounds that settle out of the liquid and are pumped as a slurry into 55-gallon drums. The drummed material, called "KOH mud" and consisting of uranium and KOH, has a pH greater than or equal to 12.5...Honeywell needed, but did not have, a RCRA permit to store any drums of KOH mud at its facility longer than 90 days.
In July 2007, Honeywell requested a modification of its RCRA permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) so that they could store drums of KOH mud. IEPA issued Honeywell a modified permit in July 2008, allowing Honeywell to store drums containing KOH mud only in a KOH container storage area designed to contain any spills, leaks or precipitation that accumulates in the drum storage area. By September 2008, Honeywell had accumulated over 7,000 drums of KOH mud. In April 2009, EPA special agents conducted a search warrant and found nearly 7,500 illegally stored drums containing waste that was both radioactive and hazardous. Honeywell began storing the KOH mud drums in compliance with the terms of its RCRA permit in approximately March 2010.
Workers had complained, to no avail, that the waste was corroding the drums and leaching out - possibly spreading to the nearby Ohio river. But instead of reporting the problems to the NRC or the Environmental Protection Agency - Honeywell covered its behind by dropping a quick line about the toxic sludge to - get this - the Securities and Exchange Commission! This is the same SEC which can't even regulate Wall Street, let alone radioactive waste. Disingenuous cynicism does not even begin to cover this blatant attempt at a cover-up.
Meanwhile, Honeywell is continuing to protect its ass by issuing a press release this week, claiming it always totally self-reports itself and as a matter of fact, has just closed the plant down for five weeks, for routine maintenance and to make "capital improvements". The sludge was/is being packed in plastic and taken "elsewhere".... maybe to nearby Metropolis, or wherever Lex Luthor keeps his stash of kryptonite.
According to the union, 42 plant workers have been diagnosed with cancer, with 27 cancer deaths reported over the past 20 years. No correlation between toxins or radioactive waste at the plant and the cancers has yet been established, although union workers say it's common knowledge that you can expect to have 10 years knocked off your life from working there.
The union, by the way, is still locked out and replaced with "scab" workers who were allegedly helped to pass their hastily-administered certification exams by plant management. And the removal of the radioactive waste does not spell the end of the problems. In December, there was a leak of hydrofluoric acid at the facility, setting off its mass sprinkler system to prevent the escape of gas to the surrounding community - home to some 128,000 people.
Oh, and back to David Cote, who has been described as one of Obama's favorite CEOs of all time. Not only did the president tap him to serve on the Cat Food Commission to lend some corporate cred in the scrapping of Social Security, he also invited him along on that India trade junket last year. ( Cote is also a past executive of G.E., another one of Obama's favorite, corporate tax-evading companies of all time). Obama's decision to help Cote further his business interests in India predictably infuriated the more than 200 locked-out Honeywell union members. USW Local 7-669 President Darrell Lillie, who represents them, had this to say in November on learning of Cote's inclusion by Obama:
"We've been forced out of our jobs for the past 20 weeks and watched unskilled scabs brought in by this company steal our jobs, cheating our families out of income that puts food on the dinner table and pays the mortgage. It strikes me as a poor choice for Honeywell's CEO David Cote to be accompanying President Obama on a mission to India for promoting American jobs and exports."
According to Mike Elk, a third generation union organizer and labor journalist who wrote about the Obama-Cote connection last year for The Huffington Post (when it was still the old, pre-AOL HuffPo), "It should come as no surprise to political observers that President Obama is taking Honeywell's side in the dispute. Honeywell is the number one political contributor in the United States. It has increased its political contributions by 400% since Obama took office in 2008. President Obama has routinely described Honeywell CEO David Cote as one of his closest advisers in the business community. Cote ensured an early political victory for the President when he persuaded the US Chamber of Commerce to stay on the sidelines during the stimulus fight."
"In return for their political contributions," Elk continued, "Honeywell has received $13 billion dollars' worth of federal contracts, mainly defense contracts, over the last ten years. Honeywell is also accused of using its political clout to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to approve allowing undertrained scabs to work with enriched uranium at the Metropolis facility. In the 60-plus years that the United Steelworkers union has represented the Metropolis uranium facility, the NRC has never allowed scabs to be hired during a lockout due to the safety issues related to enriching uranium."
In light of his disinterest in private sector unions, should it come as any surprise that the President didn't put on those comfortable shoes as he promised to do during his campaign, and join the public sector union demonstrations in Wisconsin? Elk, who has gone on to call Cote "the most dangerous man in America" for locking out trained union workers in favor of inexperienced lower-paid employees, also bemoans the scant press coverage of Cote and Honeywell and union-busting and presidential enabling.
Scant indeed. I must confess, I came across news of the criminal case purely by accident, via an email from the "Labor Notes" union blog. There has been no coverage of the criminal conviction, nor of the cozy relationship between Obama and Cote, in any corporate media that I can find. But I did happen upon this pic of Obama on the official Metropolis website, proving at least that he once set foot in that Land of Comic Book Heroes and Nuclear Sludge: