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Dow + “Live Earth” = the Ultimate in Greenwashing?

Since it was announced ten days ago that Dow Chemical would join 2010′s version of Al Gore’s “Live Earth” I’ve been concerned about the Nobel Prize winner’s sense of direction. For several years Dow has been sponsoring “Run For the Planet” marathons, in an effort to draw attention to the world’s need for clean drinking water. Which is a good thing. The downside is that around the world Dow chemical plants are among the worst polluters of nearby drinking water and air.

For the past eighteen months we’ve been working on a film in Louisiana about the relationship between man and water; it’s a relatively easy subject since there’s water everywhere, and every Louisianan has a water story or two or three. But my introduction to the state was nearly twenty years ago, when I went on assignment for Audubon magazine to write about a small town called Morrisonville, in Plaquemine Parish.

A hundred-fifty-year-old town homesteaded by just-freed slaves, in the 1990s it was home to a small core of eighty-seven indigent blacks. Over the years its closest neighbor – Dow Chemical – had expanded its property, and its pollutions, until both butted up against and ran under the small town; it was so close that the company installed alarm radios in each home to serve as alerts in case of an accident or spill (which most refused to turn them on, convinced the company was eavesdropping on them). Here’s what my friend Marylee Orr, founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network told the New York Times 20 years ago: “Companies are reducing their problems by moving people instead of reducing accidents and pollution.”

Over the years Dow’s chemical-making processes had badly polluted the local aquifer that lay beneath Morrisonville with vinyl chloride, information the company discovered but did not make public. Instead, when they discovered that the cancer-causing chemicals had spread over several acres just below the earth’s surface, spreading beneath the town, it did the only reasonable thing from a corporate perspective: It tried to buy off any potential complaints and lawsuits. As residents of Morrisonville resident’s began to get sick from the pollution, and as Dow recognized the impact it was having on local waterways, the company stepped up and bought up the town, house by house, moving the residents into shiny new brick houses in a nearby suburb. Though many in Morrisonville were already cancer-tinged, did the chemical company suggest to them it might be because it had polluted their drinking water? No. That would have been something of an inconvenient truth. Instead they simply said they were buying properties in order to move people away from “potential” harm.

Of course Dow’s support of “Live Earth” (I’m hoping to find out how much cash they’re putting into the event) is not completely altruistic or even out of guilt. It’s about growing its business. Turns out they have a sizable water purification business – Dow Water and Process Solutions – they are hoping to grow “by double digits” and participation in “Live Earth” is simply good advertising. (At the NYC press conference announcing Dow’s support, Ian Barbour, general managaer of Dow Water and Process Solutions, told the crowd and gathered participating celebrities (Jessica Biel, Pete Wentz and more), “We want to generate a surge in awareness and level of funding that will make a difference – making a dent in the number of people who don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. We must energize people to get involved.” While helping to solve the global water crisis is a worthwhile humanitarian cause, it is also good for business, he acknowledged, suggesting that Dow Chemical aims to grow its Dow Water & Process Solutions unit by double-digit rates. “We’ve seen average annual growth of 12-15% for our water business in the last decade, and we expect this level of organic growth going forward. We are also looking out for acquisitions, especially of new technologies that can drive down the cost of water purification.”)

Dow’s Louisiana story has been repeated around the globe wherever it has made chemicals (see the story below from My question for Al Gore, his partners at “Live Earth” and the celebrity spokespeople who’ve signed on to promote Dow’s “Run for the Planet” is do they need Dow’s sponsorship badly enough to put up with the obvious bad press they’ll deservedly get for the linkage? Or maybe their goal is to try and “cleanse” the company’s attitude towards clean water and community relationships.

From As more bad news surrounding Dow Chemical and its pollution of a vast river valley in Michigan surfaces, one has to wonder if their sponsorship of Live Earth’s clean water initiative is looking less like social responsibility and more like a giant billboard for irony.

The company recently agreed to help clean up more than 50-miles of the Tittabawassee River after dumping cancer-causing dioxins into it for most of the last century. The contamination has turned the area into one of the nation’s most polluted sites — something the Obama administration decided was in desperate need of government intervention. According to company records, Dow has known since the mid-1960s that dioxins could sicken or even kill people. The EPA even performed independent tests confirming that the chemicals cause cancer and “disrupt the immune and reproductive systems.”
Despite this, Dow has been criticized time and time again for dragging their feet on the matter. “This cleanup can get done, and a company like Dow can afford it,” Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center told the LA Times. “But we are under no illusions that this will be carried out without constant pressure from concerned citizens.”

If current events aren’t enough to make Live Earth second-guess their partnership with Dow, the company’s handling of the Bhopal cleanup should have been the first red flag. 25 years ago, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents happened in Bhopal after a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked a deadly gas that spread over the city. 8,000-10,000 people died within the first 72 hours — and 25,000 have died since. According to Wikipedia, some 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals abandoned at the Union Carbide plant continue to pollute the ground water in the region and affect thousands residents of Bhopal who depend on it.

Since Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, the company has refused to perform any additional cleanup, saying that UC’s settlement payments have already fulfilled Dow’s financial responsibility for the disaster. However, the on-going contamination of ground water in the region and high rates of cancer have brought heavy criticism on the company; most notably from campaigns fueled by corporate pranksters The Yes Men. In June, 27 members of Congress wrote to Dow Chemical Company CEO Andrew Liveris and Dow’s Board of Directors, urging the company to face their criminal and civil liabilities for the tragedy that occurred at Bhopal. “While thousands continue to suffer, Union Carbide and its successor, Dow Chemical, have yet to be brought to justice,” Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) wrote in the letter. “I appreciate the efforts of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal to raise awareness of the plight of the people of Bhopal. Members of Congress will continue to fight against companies that evade civil and criminal liability by exploiting international borders and legal jurisdictions.”

One wonders how Dow can be so concerned about clean water, but completely ignore or avoid responsibility for environmental dangers that continue to happen under their watch. It’s even more maddening when you see organizations like Live Earth and charity:water jumping into bed with them. Sponsorship means cashflow to pull off important events, but is a company like Dow worth the ethical headache? Should an initiative focused on the water crisis partner with a company that is responsible for some of that damage to begin with?

Short answer: No.