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"Giving polluters a free pass when their negligence kills should be a non-starter," said Friends of the Earth's Lukas Ross. (Photo: Andrew Hart/flickr/cc)

As McConnell Tees Up Next Aid Package With Corporate Liability as 'Red Line,' Polluters Pushing to Secure Shield Against Covid-19 Lawsuits

"Corporate liability waivers are just the next phase of a Trump polluter bailout."

Andrea Germanos

New lobby filings reveal that polluting industries have been working hard to secure legal protection from lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus pandemic—a shield from consequence that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly sees as a "red line" in including in the next Covid-19 aid package.

Environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FOE) drew attention to the lobbying reports released this week from the Plastic Industry Association, dark money group FreedomWorks, and companies including fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil and agri-giant Smithfield Foods—whose Sioux Falls, South Dakota processing plant became a coronavirus hotspot.

"Corporate liability waivers are just the next phase of a Trump polluter bailout," FOE program manager Lukas Ross said in a statement Thursday.

The fresh scrutiny comes as roughly 25 million Americans are looking at the end of a crucial lifeline and possible economic "catastrophe" because the $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits secured under the CARES Act is set to expire this week. Republicans are looking to slash the weekly amount, likely to $200 per week, the Associated Press reported, and McConnell (R-Ky.) appears in little rush to pass the next coronavirus relief legislation.

As millions of workers spent the last three months in economic uncertainty, the new filings show how industries were working to shield themselves from blame should workers file coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

According to FOE, other polluting corporations and dark money groups that lobbied for such liability protection include ConocoPhillips, the American Petroleum Institute, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and utilities including Exelon.

The companies' aggressive push hasn't been for nothing, it appears, as Republicans look to make liability waivers a "centerpiece" of their legislative package.

Politico reported Thursday:

McConnell is drawing a red line with liability protection. Businesses, schools, and other organizations would receive protection from lawsuits arising from exposure to coronavirus due to reopening. Lawsuits would be moved to federal courts, and plaintiffs would have to show "gross negligence" by employers in order to win.

Ross accused Republicans of "trying to hold critical relief like unemployment benefits hostage in order to shield their corporate cronies from the law," and said that "[g]iving polluters a free pass when their negligence kills should be a non-starter."

Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at FOE, pointed out that workers at meat plants owned by companies like Smithfield have been on the front-lines of the public health crisis. "Already more than 35,000 meatpacking workers have been infected and 168 have died due to Covid," she said. 

"Liability waivers will embolden meat companies to further disregard the safety of their workers, the majority of whom are black and Latinx," said Hamerschlag.

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