THE story of Anniston, Alabama, provides a chilling glimpse of the dark side of corporate culture. Decades ago, the St. Louis-based Monsanto company -- now known as Solutia Inc. -- reaped the benefits of a 40-year monopoly on the production of PCBs, an industrial coolant since outlawed as a pollutant and human health hazard. The Monsanto factory in Anniston discharged so much toxic waste into a nearby creek that fish turned belly-up within 10 seconds. As early as 1970, PCB contamination was also found in wastewater and creeks in Sauget.
Millions of pounds of PCBs were dumped into open-pit landfills. The Washington Post describes what remains of Anniston as "one of the most polluted patches of America."
It is one thing to make a human mistake out of ignorance -- which is how this sad tale began. But once a company knows it is selling tires that explode, or spewing lead dust that impairs brain function or hawking highly addictive products that cause cancer -- and then conceals this knowledge or refuses to act on it -- it has broached even the minimum standards of ethics. This is where the tale of Anniston takes a nasty turn, apparently failing the all-important questions: What did you know? And when did you know it?
According to thousands of documents acquired by The Washington Post, even after the damage was discovered some 30 years ago, the company did not tell the trusting folks of Anniston that the streams where their children swam and the dirt in their gardens had become thoroughly, dangerously polluted.
In 1997 Monsanto spun off this chemical division, which is now Solutia Inc. The actual human beings who hid the truth in documents labeled "CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy," are either dead, retired, elsewhere or unknown. Although the story has now surfaced in the Washington Post because of a civil complaint finally making its way to court, the sad truth is that no matter what the verdict is, no person will be held truly accountable.
As their stock plummeted 28 percent in a single day, current Solutia officials sprang to the defense, noting that the company has spent more than $40 million on remediation activities in Anniston. Monsanto ceased manufacturing PCBs in Anniston in 1971 and in Sauget in 1977, two years before they were banned in 1979. Monsanto is now focused solely on agriculture, declaring a new pledge of openness and accountability. It disclaims any connection to current events in Anniston.
While a citizen who throws trash out a car window might be fined hundreds of dollars, corporate directors are rarely, if ever, held personally responsible for actions many times more harmful. It is this systemic failing that needs to be addressed -- a tall order when big corporations are largely funding the campaigns of those who make -- and change -- laws.
Corporations must be pushed -- by citizens, laws or both -- to hold themselves accountable to stakeholders, to communities, employees, customers and greater society -- as well as stockholders.
© 2002 St Louis Post-Dispatch