Since the world’s largest chemical accident in 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed 3,000 and injured 100,000, the industry has used a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent strategies to improve its tarnished image, while at the same time blocking regulatory reform.
The “Responsible Care Campaign”
In launching the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association (CMA) 1988 campaign, its former Chairman Robert Roland announced: “We are not asking the public to trust us. We are asking everyone to track us.” However, these platitudes, heavily promoted by a multimillion dollar ad campaign, were in striking contrast to the CMA’s vigorous opposition to Right-to-Know legislation, and to regulations to prevent chemical accidents, and toxic and carcinogenic emissions from industrial facilities.
Chemical Industry Poised To Launch New Campaign
To Improve Its Public Image 1
As detailed in a recent trade report, business groups are now preparing an unprecedented elaborate and coordinated campaign to improve the public image of chemical makers by emphasizing significant improvements in the industry's environmental and safety record, while also touting the key role of chemicals in many popular products.
The campaign is being modeled on a highly successful communications strategy advanced by the plastics industry over the past decade, which cost over $250 million and is thought to have dramatically improved public perception of the industry. The campaign is also credited with helping ease regulatory pressures on the industry, particularly related to waste disposal, industry officials say.
“ Without any public understanding of what we do or how we do it or why, we inadvertently create an information vacuum,” said Greg Lebedev, the new president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in a 10/28/02 speech in Houston. “In many respects, we have become an industry without a definition.”
Without an aggressive strategy to change public attitudes, Lebedev warned that chemical makers would fall victim to “the activist industry: extreme environmentalists, health terrorists and predatory trial lawyers." The environmentalists feed their opinions into media reports and influence government regulators, Lebedev said.
ACC officials proposed to spend $5 million on a "reputation initiative," which will communicate what they view as a strong environmental record and also highlight the benefits from products that originate in chemical factories. If approved by the ACC board of directors, in June of next year, the money would fund pilot projects for the latter half of 2003, possibly leading up to a wider campaign the following year.
Chemical companies could be asked to pay additional dues to ACC in order to pay for the initiative, sources say. But given the economic downturn, it is still uncertain whether companies will be willing to contribute, though most businesses support the project's overall goals, says a source familiar with the project.
The reputation initiative has three major goals. The first, to initiate discussions with community groups, environmentalists and other organizations involved in the political process. ACC has already set up a "leadership dialogue" that brings together public policy experts to discuss a variety of long-term problems affecting the industry (Chemical Policy Alert, July 30, p2).
The second part of the effort will be to pull together under the new initiative a number of existing voluntary programs to improve the industry's health and safety performance. These include: the Responsible Care program, which is currently being overhauled in an effort to improve its effectiveness; the High Production Volume (HPV) chemical testing program; the Long-Range Research Initiative on testing chemical hazards; and a voluntary program to track children's health risks.
Finally, industry officials will identify target audiences to whom they would communicate their message, possibly through a major advertising campaign. Possible audiences could be the general public, local communities, the media and government officials.
The upcoming public relations initiative was inspired by a campaign conducted by the American Plastics Council, which last year merged with ACC. The campaign, known as "plastics makes it possible," included advertisements, working with the media to generate favorable press coverage, and responding aggressively to any public statements about the industry's environmental record. Industry groups also worked with local officials to develop an extensive state government relations program.
" The American Plastics Council faced the very same conundrum, and they had a very successful improvement program," said Thomas E. Reilly, Jr., chairman of the board at ACC, in a speech on Oct. 28 in Houston. "Can we succeed like plastics? We won't proceed to go forward until there's solid logic to indicate that we can."
Chemical Industry Scores Major Victories In Congressional Races2
As detailed in another recent trade report, the 2002 midterm election was a major victory for the chemical industry, as nine of the top ten recipients of industry contributions won their races. Most notably, Rep. Jim Talent (R-MO), who was the single largest recipient of chemical industry money of all candidates in the 2002 elections, narrowly edged by Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-MO), in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country.
Republicans Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, Elizabeth Dole (NC), Rep. Lindsey Graham (SC), and former Mayor of Saint Paul Norm Coleman (MN) all scored victories that were critical in allowing the GOP to regain control of the Senate. Each of these candidates was among the top ten recipients of chemical industry money in the 2002 election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
On the House side, 18 of the top 20 recipients of chemical industry money won their elections. Most of the industry's contributions went to incumbents, particularly members of the House leadership and members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Talent and Cornyn were the top two recipients of chemical industry money for this election cycle, receiving $54,600 and $42,700 respectively. Dole was seventh, receiving $32,250; Graham was ninth, receiving $29,550; and Coleman was tenth, receiving $27,550.
In addition, Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, won the state's Senate seat backed by $16,000 of chemical industry money. The seat was left open by Sen. Fred Thompson (R), who retired from the Senate.
Another notable recipient of industry money was Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-OK), . . . (now) chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (replacing James M. Jeffords, (I-VT) and has been a strong supporter of industry-backed chemical security legislation that would codify the industry's "Responsible Care" program. Inhofe received $20,750 from the industry, placing him 16th among recipients running in the election.
The data shows that the industry has contributed a total of $5.5 million to political candidates during the current election cycle. The top 20 candidates receiving money from the industry include 16 Republicans and four Democrats, according to data reflecting contributions both from individuals and from political action committees (PACs) associated with chemical groups.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) received $55,150, the largest total contribution from the chemical industry. Voinovich, who is not up for reelection until 2004, is currently the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on clean air, wetlands, private property and nuclear safety. The next four top recipients are Talent, Cornyn, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-LA).
By far the top contributor within the chemical industry was Agvar Chemicals, a manufacturer of bulk pharmaceutical chemicals, at $773,625. Almost all the contributions went to Democratic candidates.
Other major contributors include the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which donated $456,627, followed closely by Contran Corp and Dow Chemical. All three organizations donated primarily to Republicans. The top Democratic recipient from the overall industry was Rep. John Dingell (MI), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at $33,000.
The industry gave approximately $1.7 million from individuals, $1.34 million from PACs, and $2.4 million in soft money. Contributions included $3.7 million to Republicans and $1.9 million to Democrats.
A fitting coda to this revealing track record of chemical industry strategies is provided in a newly released massively documented muckraking book by two prominent public health historians (3). They emphasize that a key theme is industry’s control of information, characterized by “lying and obfuscation.”
1Reprinted from Inside Washington Publishers. Chemical Policy Report, November 5, 2002.
2Reprinted from Inside Washington Publishers. Chemical Policy Report, November 6, 2002.
3 Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. G. Markowitz, D. Rosner. University of California Press, Berkeley, and Milbank Memorial Fund, New York, 2002.
*Excerpted fromThe Stop Cancer Before it Starts Campaign: How to Win the Losing War Against Cancer by Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., 2003.