MotherJones JF93: Toxic Ten

America’s truant corporations.

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Until recently, identifying the companies responsible for a disproportionate share of environmental degradation in the United States was not possible. Incredible as it seems, government agencies did not require polluters to disclose the volume of their toxic emissions. Finally, that’s changing. For instance, the Toxic Release Inventory now measures a company’s emissions of certain chemicals, and even though it covers only a tiny fraction (0.5 percent) of the 60,000-plus chemicals registered in the country, it’s a start.

Using the TRI data and about twenty other sources of information, including annual questionnaires sent to, and interviews with, company representatives, researchers from the nonprofit Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) set out to identify which corporate polluters have been the worst offenders in eight major industries. (See page 42 for the industries studied, the judges who helped select the companies, and the groups in the Campaign for Cleaner Corporations that are pressing for reforms.)

Mother Jones created this year’s Toxic Ten based largely on CEP’s work. The CEP judges selected two companies from forest products, but declined to choose a representative from the oil industry. “From the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to Mobil’s self-serving ‘advertorials,’ to the leaking Trans-Alaskan pipeline, virtually every oil company has left a poor environmental legacy,” explained the CEP’s Alice Tepper Marlin. Mother Jones chose Exxon as the oil industry’s representative on the Toxic Ten because of the massive Valdez oil spill off Alaska in 1989.

Mother Jones chose the foreign-based company on the list, Ciba-Geigy, Ltd., to highlight what the CEP judgespointed to as a serious informational double standard involving multinational corporations’ overseas operations.

The Toxic Ten is a first step toward holding corporations accountable for their environmental impacts. As one of the project judges, Paul Hawken, told us: “Listing companies on the Toxic Ten will work because they hate this sort of thing. So many corporations are making such puffy noises about how good they are on environmental issues, but not all of them are. One thing is for sure: Environmentalism is now an issue for all of them.”


The largest chemical company in the United States has given the world nylon, Teflon, Freon, and leaded gasoline (which it still makes for markets overseas); is the country’s number-one emitter of toxins, releasing poisons at the rate of just under a million pounds a day, according to the EPA’s 1989 data; is the world’s largest producer of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCS); and leads all other companies in domestic deep-well injection of toxic wastes (254.9 million pounds in 1989). Recently, Du Pont was forced to pay $1.4 million in damages for concealing records showing that six employees had developed lung damage from asbestos exposure. Its operation of the government’s Savannah River nuclear-weapons complex (1950-1989) polluted water sources for the area and has been connected to elevated levels of leukemia, lung cancer, and other diseases. The company’s consumer products include Stainmaster carpets, Dacron, and Lycra.


The EPA has identified 166 separate hazardous-waste dumps at Rock- well’s Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons facility outside Denver, including “Hillside 88l,” thought to be the worst-polluted spot in the country and a threat to local drinking water. In 1992, Rockwell paid $18.5 million in fines for environmental violations (including five felonies) at Rocky Flats. Rockwell also is the second-largest emitter of airborne toxins in the heavily polluted Los Angeles Basin; it has admitted to ten accidental releases of radioactive materials there over the past twenty years, and has been identified by the state authorities as possibly responsible for high rates of bladder cancer.

General Motors

General Motors releases three times as much toxic pollution as its main U.S. competitor, Ford Motor Co.; paid the most in OSHA penalties of any U.S. company between 1977 and 1990; has been linked with 200 Superfund sites, including a landfill in New York that will take an estimated $100 million to clean up; and is the top producer of ozone- depleting chemicals in California. A GM plant in Saginaw, Michigan, pumped toxic material into the environment at the rate of more than a thousand pounds an hour in 1989.

General Electric

Even as General Electric was giving failing actor Ronald Reagan his big break as host of a 1950s TV series, it was neglecting to warn residents near its Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State about its regular releases of radioactive substances into the environment. GE plants also discharged 500,000 pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River over a thirty-year period. One of the three major manufacturers of nuclear-power plants, GE has been sued by several utility companies for supplying them with deficient nuclear- containment vessels. GE designed Mexico’s only nuclear-power plant, which has dumped radioactive water into the Gulf of Mexico. GE markets appliances and lightbulbs.

Georgia Pacific

According to 1991 EPA data, Georgia Pacific has the worst air-permit compliance record in the forest-products industry, and has pulp and paper mills that were cited as out of compliance for a cumulative sixty-one quarters (fifteen-plus years!). It also has plants emitting dangerously high amounts of cancer-causing chloroform into the air of at least four states. Recently, G-P was fined $5 million for tax evasion in a scheme that would have allegedly damaged a wetlands area, and lost two court decisions concerning its release of the fiendishly toxic pollutant dioxin. As the largest U.S. importer of tropical timber, Georgia Pacific prompted the Rainforest Action Network to call for a boycott of its Coronet and Angel Soft brand paper products.


Although Cargill is one of the world’s largest grain traders, meat packers, flour millers, and seed companies, and also runs steel mills, this $49 billion company is able to operate in great secrecy because it is privately held. Nonetheless, Cargill has been cited for over 2,000 OSHA violations since 1987 spilled 40,000 gallons of toxic phosphoric solution into the Alafia River in Florida in 1988, causing a massive fish kill; since 1991 has had the worst air compliance record of any company in its industry: and scored second-lowest among its competitors on CEP’s Greendex, which measures the environmental soundness of PAC contributions. It is also one of the top two emitters of toxics in its industry according to the EPA. In 1991, then-governor Bill Clinton criticized the company for releasing into Arkansas rivers animal waste comparable to the output of 21 million people, or about ten times the state’s population. Cargill products include Honeysuckle White and Riverside turkeys, Excel pork and beef, and Fresh Cargo and Nautica shrimp.


Since acquiring the former Pacific Lumber Company in 1985, Maxxam has held the future of the Northwest’s old-growth forests in its hands. The prospects are not good. In order to pay off the junk bonds used to finance the Pacific Lumber deal and other takeovers, Maxxam has been overharvesting virgin redwood forests. Furthermore, Maxxam has been linked to 19 Superfund sites; was cited for eight “willful” violations of OSHA violations in 1988; and scored poorly on CEP’s Greendex. A Washington State facility has been cited repeatedly by the state for water- and air-pollution violations; its subsidiary Kaiser Aluminum (also taken over with junk bonds) released over 4.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1989.


Formerly United States Steel Corporation, USX operates a notorious steelworks in Gary, Indiana, which has been fined $34 million in penalties and cleanup costs for dumping toxin-laden wastewater, and $1.6 million more for violating the Clean Air Act. USX has also been repeatedly cited for violating air standards for toxic emissions in Pennsylvania at its Fairless and its Clairton works. Additionally, USX’s Marathon subsidiary was responsible for a hydrofluoric-acid leak that led to the evacuation of 4,000 people in Texas City in 1987. USX owns Marathon and Speedway gas stations in the Midwest and Southeast.


CEP’s judges could not settle on an oil company because the entire industry had such an “egregious track record,” reported CEP’s Alice Tepper Marlin. But we have chosen here to list Exxon, the nation’s largest energy company, which was responsible for one of the worst ecological disasters in history – the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 11.2 million gallons off Alaska in 1989. Exxon has been linked to 22 Superfund sites; three of its chemical plants alone emitted over 7.5 million pounds of toxics in 1988; and its mining subsidiary has one of the worst safety records in the country.


Due to a disturbing double standard whereby foreign-based multinational companies are not obliged to disclose as much information about their environmental impacts overseas as they do about their records in the U.S., CEP judges called for an international requirement that all corporations worldwide divulge comparable, detailed, and accurate environmental data wherever they operate, so that they may be properly evaluated in the future. We have chosen to list Ciba-Geigy, Ltd., a Swiss-based agrochemical and drug multinational, to represent this global problem. In behavior shockingby any standard, Ciba-Geigy tested herbicides on human subjects in the 1970s in Egypt and India. (Due to the lack ofavailable data, no grades can be given)

How the Toxic Ten can get off the list

The CEP has formulated specific, measurable environmental goals for each company. Next year the judges will examine evidence provided by the companies and by members of the Campaign for Cleaner Corporations to assess whether enough progress has been made to warrant taking the companies off the list. Meanwhile, there are encouraging signs of progress by some of the offenders. Du Pont (which accounts for 25 percent of the global CFC market) is trying to develop alternative’ products that do not destroy the ozone layer. The company also recycles plastics and paper at its facilities, and reports that’ it achieved a 35 percent reduction in hazardous waste between 1982 and 1990, with the goal of an additional 35 percent reduction by the year 2000. Rockwell claims that its automotive division saved $300,000 by recycling paper and industrial liquids in 1991. General Motors promises to make an electric vehicle available by the mid-1990s, and an employee at its Hughes Aircraft subsidiary has developed a lemon- based substitute for the CFCs used to clean circuit boards. General Electric claims it achieved a 45 percent reduction in toxic releases between 1987 and 1991. Georgia Pacific says it has cut its output levels of the pollutant dioxin by 85 percent since 1988.


The Toxic Ten’s desire to appear environmentally concerned is beyond question. Ciba-Geigy labeled its pet spray as “ozone friendly,” even though environmentalists claimed it contained an ozone-depleting chemical. The company later changed the label to read “CFC free.” Rockwell used Ansel Adams’ nature photography as part of an ad campaign that outraged environmentalists. The advertising critic for the trade journal Advertising Age cited General Motors for the year’s most “egregious” environmental advertisement of 1991, in which the company painted itself as an environmentally aware and sound operation – despite its having fought stricter environmental standards for two decades. General Electric was similarly awarded a Harlan Page Hubbard Lemon Award for misleading, unfair, or irresponsible advertising in launching its “energy-efficient lightbulb” that, well, wasn’t.

The Toxic Ten was compiled for Mother Jones by David Weir and Priscilla Yamin. Additional research courtesy of Nexis/Lexis.

Judges and industries

The Toxic Ten were selected from eight of the most environmentally hazardous industries in the country: aerospace/defense; automobiles; chemicals; electrical equipment; food; forest products; oil; and steel. Three further industries – electric utilities; metals and mining; and waste management – will be studied by CEP in 1993.

  • Garry Brewer, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
  • Anthony Carfang, Covenant Investment Management, Chicago, IL
  • Sophia Collier, Working Assets Capital Management, Portsmouth, NH
  • Mark Green, NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, New York, NY
  • Paul Hawken, Author, Sausalito, CA Jay Hopkins, Capital Values, U.S. Trust of Boston, San Francisco, CA
  • Dr. Donald Louria, Department of Preventive Medicine, New Jersey Medical School, Newark, NJ
  • Joel Makower, Green Business Letter, Washington, DC
  • Mike McCloskey, Sierra Club, Washington, DC
  • Kenneth Mountcastle, Dean Witter Reynolds, New York, NY
  • Andy Smith, American Baptist Churches National Ministries, Valley Forge, PA

Campaign for Cleaner Corporations

The research for the Toxic Ten was performed by the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) in New York City. The following organizations, are part of the Campaign for Cleaner Corporations and are working to address the problems uncovered by this research:

  • CEP, New York, NY; (212) 420-1133 Citizen Action, Columbus, OH; (614) 224-4111
  • Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, Falls Church, VA; (703) 237-2249
  • Citizens for a Better Environment, San Francisco, CA; (415) 243-8373
  • Co-op America, Washington, DC; (202) 872-5307
  • Earth Island Institute, San Francisco, CA; (415) 788-3666
  • Environmental Research Foundation, Washington, DC; (202) 328-1119
  • Good Neighbor Project, Acton, MA; (508) 264-4060
  • Government Accountability Project, Washington, DC; (202) 408-0034
  • Greenpeace, New York, NY; (212) 941-0994
  • Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, Minneapolis, MN; (612) 379- 5980 Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, New York, NY; (212) 870-2623
  • National Toxics Campaign Fund, Boston, MA; (617) 232-0327
  • Rainforest Action Network, San Francisco, CA; (415) 398-4404
  • Sierra Club, Washington, DC; (202) 547-1141
  • Student Environmental Action Coalition, Chapel Hill, NC; (919) 967- 4600
  • 20/20 Vision, Washington, DC; (202) 728-1157
  • Women’s Environment & Development Organization, New York, NY; (212) 759-7982
  • Working Assets, San Francisco, CA; 1-800-788-8588
  • Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC; (202) 452-1999


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