WASHINGTON -- The year was 1963, the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" had just opened the modern environmental movement, and the chemical industry reckoned it had a public relations emergency on its hands.
Already that year, the industry's trade association had spent $75,000 scraped together for a "crash program" to counter the book's environmental message. It needed an additional $66,000 to expand the public relations campaign. Several companies quickly pledged more money to challenge the book's arguments, according to the association's internal documents.
That chain of events would be repeated time and again, at ever increasing expense, as the industry's lobbying arm in Washington, now known as the American Chemistry Council, confronted the environmental age in the corridors of power and in the arena of public opinion.
Now the industry's practices over the decades are facing unusual and unwanted exposure, as its documents, turned up by trial lawyers in lawsuits against the industry, are being published by environmental advocates on the Web and explored in a PBS documentary on Monday. Many of the documents were disclosed in 1998 in a series of articles in The Houston Chronicle, but until now they have not received much wider attention.
The adverse publicity is nothing new for the chemical industry.
"I seem, perhaps like Halley's comet, to float periodically into the orbit of your board," an industry lobbyist, Glen Perry, said to the chemical group's board in 1966, "generally with my hand outstretched in a plea for financial support of efforts to avert, or avoid the consequences of, some frightful catastrophe. Like Rachel Carson."
Or Bhopal. Or Love Canal. Or state ballot initiatives unfriendly to the industry, or legislation tightening regulations on toxic wastes. Or even the industry's growing perception that no matter how much money it spent on public relations — amounts that grew from a few thousand dollars a year to a few million a year as the decades passed — it was losing its war for public opinion.
The industry used many weapons in its campaigns to influence state and federal laws; public relations was just one of them.
Giving money to candidates, of course, played an important role in the industry's strategy, according to a 1980 document discussing "political muscle, how much we've got, and how we can get more."
Spending by political action committees helped its lobbyists gain access to members of Congress, the document said. "But over the long term, the more important function of the PAC's is to upgrade the Congress," it said.
Just as important, said a 1984 document, were carefully orchestrated "grass roots efforts" like the industry's establishment of a pressure group with the benign name Citizens for Effective Environmental Action Now.
The industry spent more than $150,000 that year to make 25,000 phone calls and send 42,000 pieces of direct mail. Adopting new computer technology for the first time, the group documented more than 7,000 calls and telegrams to seven important Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, which was drafting the Superfund legislation governing toxic waste dumps.
"Grass roots delivered three congressmen who were ready to take action during committee writing of legislation," the document said. But the "industry lobby was unable to respond quickly to their offer of help," the industry association's assessment noted. "We must be prepared to provide the congressmen with a simple action plan and legislative language."
But Congress was responding to broader public concerns, and for decades the industry was painfully conscious of how hard it was to sway public opinion.
"The Public Relations Committee realizes that public fear of chemicals is a disease which will never be completely eradicated," a committee member, Cleveland Lane, reported in 1964. "It may lie dormant or appear from time to time as a minor rash, but it can flare up at any time as a major and debilitating fever for our industry as a result of a few, or even one instance, such as the Mississippi fish kill, or the publication by some highly readable alarmist, or as an issue seized upon by some politician in need of building a crusading image."
At the same time, Mr. Lane acknowledged that only deeds, not words, could salvage the industry's reputation — a credo that industry lobbyists repeat to this day.
"No public relations operation, no matter how effective, can cover up acts of carelessness or neglect which do harm to the citizens," said Mr. Lane, who worked for Goodrich-Gulf Chemicals Inc. "As long as we produce products or conduct operations which can cause health hazards, public discomfort or property damage, we must do all we can to prevent these situations."
In recent years, the industry has increasingly tailored its publicity campaigns to emphasize its efforts to follow strict safety standards, set forth in a voluntary effort it calls Responsible Care. The effort is intended to control the risks of chemical pollution and help convince a skeptical public that the industry is made up of good corporate citizens.
Among those not convinced of the industry's good faith is Bill Moyers, whose documentary for PBS focuses on the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride, the subject of litigation by a chemical industry worker's widow that uncovered the documents. The report relies heavily on them to assert that the companies and their trade association covered up the dangers of the chemical, used for making plastic products.
Even before the documentary was broadcast, the industry group charged Mr. Moyers last week with "journalistic malpractice" for not including interviews with its spokesmen or allowing them to preview the program. Instead, Mr. Moyers has invited them to react to his documentary in a half-hour discussion to be broadcast immediately afterward.
"I consider myself in good company to be attacked by the industry that tried to smear Rachel Carson," Mr. Moyers said on Friday.
Rachel Carson was public relations enemy No. 1 to an industry. (CBS Photo)
The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington, plans to publish on its Web site on Tuesday tens of thousands of pages of internal industry documents produced in lawsuits. The group plans to expand the Web site, www.ewg.org, into a wide-ranging archive of industry documents.
The documents cover not just vinyl chloride and public relations crusades but every facet of the industry association's work, from lobbying on taxes and price controls to transportation safety and the growing array of laws and regulations that have taken effect since the 1960's.
In 1979, the industry began a multimillion-dollar advertising effort to counter "growing evidence that the public image of the chemical industry is unfavorable, and this has negative results on sales and profits," one document explained.
Then in 1984, disaster struck with the explosion of a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, which killed and injured thousands of people.
The industry found in surveys later that "we are perceived as the No. 1 environmental risk to society," an industry association official told the group's board in 1986.
Despite continued spending to improve its image, little had changed by 1990, association officials found.
"There is a rising tide of environmental awareness in the country," a document reported that year. "Favorable public opinion about the industry continues to decline." In a decade, the percentage of the public that considered the industry underregulated grew to 74 percent from 56 percent.
So as the environmental groups, with membership expanding by hundreds of thousands of people a year, laid plans for a 20th celebration of Earth Day, in 1990, the industry worked to make its voice heard, too.
For the first time, it began to advertise its Responsible Care program, setting aside a $5 million, five-year budget to make its approach known to the public. "The public must see an entire industry on the move," one document said.
"The term `public relations' is morally bankrupt," a memorandum cautioned, "and yet, done properly, is exactly what is needed to make Responsible Care work."
And in interviews last week, the group's lobbyists said that Responsible Care was steadily improving the industry's environmental performance — and that its latest polling suggested this approach now seemed to be winning over the public.
"The evolution of an industry is a journey," said Charles W. Van Vlack, the American Chemistry Council's chief operating officer. "It is a fascinating evolution in terms of attitude and in terms of performance. We went through the process of the public coming to terms with our industry before most, if not all, other industries. It was in our face — we had to deal with it."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company