Shareholders pressure corporations for greater environmental accountability

Faith-based shareholders are pressing corporations to be more accountable to the communities in which they are located, particularly in terms of corporate impacts on the environmental and human health.

Synagro of Houston, Texas, the operator of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company’s facility in the South Bronx, NY, is the focus of a shareholder-sponsored resolution on environmental impacts filed by members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR).

The facility processes up to 40 percent of New York City’s treated sludge - and has the capacity to handle the city’s entire output - into fertilizer pellets, which are then sold for agricultural use. While the company runs its sludge through an intense heating process designed to kill pathogens, concerns about heavy metals such as lead, iron and zinc remain – as well as the noxious odor that wafts through the neighborhood.

The resolution “…requests the Board of Directors to report on environmental, health and safety impacts of New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCo), operated by Synagro, on the South Bronx, New York community…” It further states “…[c]orporations have a moral and legal responsibility to account for impacts - not only on ecosystems, but also on health and safety of communities hosting their facilities.”

According to the resolution, Hunts Point, the neighborhood in which NYOFCo is located, “is one of the poorest Congressional Districts in the U.S., where incidence of childhood asthma is among the highest in the nation. This community bears heavy environmental burdens from local industrial and commercial facilities that daily bring thousands of diesel trucks through the neighborhood. Since opening, NYOFCo has added to environmental burdens of Hunts Point and the surrounding area. Even after [Synagro] acquired NYOFCo operations in 2000, residents continued complaining that noxious odors emanate from the plant.”

Shareholders are asking the company to report on “NYOFCo’s total releases - both within its permit and emergency releases - to air, water and land, including releases of toxins, molds, pathogens, hazardous waste and hazardous air pollutants …The extent to which NYOFCo’s operations may impact health and/or safety of individuals in Hunts Point and the South Bronx and how Synagro and NYOFCo integrate community environmental accountability into environmental management procedures and business practices…”

Stating that “communities are often the forgotten stakeholders in terms of corporate activities and impact”, ICCR members also filed shareholder resolutions on accountability at ExxonMobil and Conoco Phillips. The resolutions ask how the companies: 1) make reports regarding their emissions and environmental impacts on land, water and soil available to the communities in which they operate; 2) integrate community environmental accountability into their business practices; and 3) report on the extent to which company practices have negative health impacts on people living in economically-poor communities. While corporations are required to collect emissions data, under the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory, the information is not always available in an easy-to-read format, nor published in a timely manner.

Chevron is being taken to task for the actions of one of its predecessor companies, Texaco, which between 1972-1992 extracted over 1.4 billion barrels of oil from the Ecuadorean Amazon in a joint venture with Petroecuador. Shareholders state: “During this time, the trans-Ecuadorean pipeline spilled an estimated 19 million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the Exxon Valdez. “ Texaco disposed of most of the oil in “unlined pits, waterways and wetlands, although it was standard practice in the U.S. to re-inject such waters into the ground.” Texaco cleaned up some of these toxic pits, but the groundwater remains contaminated. Studies have linked consumption of the contaminated waters to infections and cancers. A class-action lawsuit with 30,000 plaintiffs in Ecuador is seeking additional remediation.

A shareholder resolution at Chevron asks for disclosure of legal, lobbying and public relations fees “relating in anyway to the hydrocarbon exposures and Chevron’s remediation of Texaco drilling sites in Ecuador.” Shareholders believe that Chevron is dealing with the contamination that remains from Texaco’s drilling “as a public relations problem rather than a serious health and environmental problem.” Another resolution calls on Chevron to apply globally environmental standards that are as strict as those of California, where Chevron is headquartered.