Corporations have spent untold millions of dollars through multitudinous routes over the last decade to arrive at the legal status they have now. According the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, corporations are people. And that means they have rights, like the right to free speech, which has been interpreted by the court as the right to spend infinite amounts of money to influence political campaigns.
Rights are very special things: Only citizens have them. And as we all learned in sixth grade civics class, rights only exists when they are balanced against a special class of behavioral constraints: Responsibilities. According to the laws of our land, people who inflict harm on other people may suffer criminal penalties. There may be fines. There may be a term of incarceration.
Of course, the emperor-has-no-clothes notion that corporations are people stumbles a bit here. A fine that would be devastating to a live human being is trivial to a corporation; they simply restructure and move forward. And determining how a corporation could be jailed has so far eluded our brightest legal minds. Corporations have made excellent use of this fuzziness to avoid most penalties.
Nonetheless, penalties must be levied, even though there may be much squirming by executive in an attempt to avoid paying the piper. The Freedom Industries leak could be an excellent test event, and there are signs that some government officials are taking real action in this case. Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky signed a court order preventing Freedom Industries from further removing possible evidence from its facility. And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has launched a federal investigation to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
But in West Virginia, where coal is king, the pressure to allow Freedom Industries to escape with trivial, largely symbolic, penalties will be intense. Credo Action has launched a petition to demand that Mr. Goodwin hold Freedom Industries fully accountable. Add your voice to the widespread calls for justice by signing it.
What kind of company is Freedom Industries?
The company’s bland self-description is, “Freedom Industries is a full-service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries.” But a quick review of the area’s corporate filings pierces the Chamber-of-Commerce-speak and suggests a company culture steeped in criminal behavior. For example, one of CEO Gary Southern’s co-founders was Carl L. Kennedy II, a twice-convicted felon. Up until 2005, when he plead guilty to tax evasion in federal court in West Virginia, he had an executive role at Freedom Industries. Previously, in 1987, he plead guilty to selling between 10 and 12 ounces of cocaine.
CEO Gary Southern has demonstrated significant arrogance in the days following the chemical leak, and is engaged in a full court press of responsibility evasion. However, his well-paid troops are not all lining up as ordered. In a telling move, Southern Industries’ public relations firm, Charles Ryan, announced on January 12 that they have decided to stop representing the company. Given that crisis management as a key PR task, this very public move suggests that there are serious problems at Freedom Industries that have not yet come to light.
For example, the company may have been avoiding standard maintenance practices: Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper says a containment wall at Freedom Industries was in need of repairs totaling $1 million. It is this mismanagement that allowed the chemicals to seep through the faulty containment wall.
A quick primer on 4-methylcyclohexane methanol
4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a chemical used for washing coal before it goes to market to reduce ash, also known as the “froth flotation process” of coal preparation.It is known to be fatal to rats and considered dangerous to humans. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers:
People can be exposed to this chemical by:
- Skin and/or eye contact
Symptoms to watch for include:
- Red or irritated skin
Would you like to see justice done in this case? Sign the Credo Action petition to demand that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin hold Freedom Industries fully accountable.
Photo credits: KNXV and BusinessWeek.