A whistle-blower accuses Koch brothers of “poisoning” an Arkansas town
Jane Mayer reports in the New Yorker:
In June, Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, launched a new corporate public-relations campaign called “End the Divide,” to advance the notion that Koch Industries is deeply concerned by growing inequality in America. An ad for the campaign urges viewers to “look around,” as an image of an imposing white mansion is replaced by one of blighted urban streets. “America is divided,” an announcer intones, with “government and corporations picking winners and losers, rigging the system against people, creating a two-tiered society with policies that fail our most vulnerable.”
The message was surprising, coming from a company owned by two of the richest men in the world, who have spent millions of dollars pushing political candidates and programs that favor unfettered markets and oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor. But no trouble appeared to have been spared in the commercial’s creation. It features a cast of downtrodden Americans of all colors and creeds. To portray corporate greed, it includes a shot of a Wall Street sign, followed by a smug businessman looking down at the camera, dressed in a flashy suit and tie. But, according to Dickie Guice, who worked as a safety coördinator at a large Koch-owned paper plant in Arkansas, the company need not have gone to such lengths. Instead of scouting America for examples of social neglect, the Kochs could have turned the cameras on their own factory.
This summer, Guice decided to speak out about the paper mill in Crossett, a working-class town of some fifty-two hundred residents ten miles north of the Louisiana border.* The mill is run by the paper giant Georgia-Pacific, which has been owned by Koch Industries since 2005. According to E.P.A. records, it emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens. Georgia-Pacific says that it has permits to operate the mill as it does, and disputes that it is harming local health and safety. But as far back as the nineteen-nineties, people living near the plant have described noxious odors and corrosive effluents that have forced them to stay indoors, as well as what seems to them unusually high rates of illness and death. Speaking by phone from his home, in Sterlington, Louisiana, Guice pointed the finger directly at the mill’s owners, and described a corporate coverup of air and water pollution that he says is “poisoning” the predominantly African-American community.
Guice made his début as a whistle-blower in a new documentary film, “Company Town,” about the pollution of Crossett, which premièred in June at the L.A. Film Festival. Natalie Kottke-Masocco, the film’s director, and Erica Sardarian, its co-director, spent some five years in Crossett, and over time they coaxed Guice to go on camera. “I was warned that I’d never get hired again,” he told me, when I asked why he was coming forward. “But I thought, What the heck, what are they going to do, kill me? It had to be done.”
As Guice tells it, he started working at the Crossett plant in February, 2011, when Larco Inc., a local heavy-equipment and construction firm, where he worked, was contracted by Georgia-Pacific to handle disposal of the paper plant’s waste. According to Guice, the contract called for his company to spread two hundred thousand cubic yards of “ash” dredged from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s sediment ponds across four hundred acres of property that it owned in the town. He says that Georgia-Pacific supervisors told him to spread the waste in layers in pits that were sometimes forty feet deep, and then to cover it with six inches of dirt, “so that it looked like a regular piece of land.” The land often flooded, Guice told me, and runoff would flow into trenches that fed into a local creek, which ran behind a residential area. He said that Georgia-Pacific would also dump “big plastic tanks” of untreated liquid waste. “It looks like brown liquor,” he said. “And steam comes up from it, sometimes all day.” Within a few months of starting at the paper plant, Guice said that he fell ill from exposure to the waste, developing respiratory problems. “My doctor told me to get out of there,” he said. “But I needed that job.”
After a year, Guice, who has a certification from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration in environmental safety, was promoted to the position of safety coördinator, again as a Larco contractor to Georgia-Pacific. In his new post, he was given air-quality monitoring equipment, which he told me showed “deadly levels of hydrogen sulfide,” a foul-smelling, colorless gas that has proven carcinogenic to rats and mice. Guice took measurements in the morning, midday, and evening, and documented them all. When he told the Georgia-Pacific supervisors that he was getting readings so high that they indicated a potential for immediate illness and death, he says the company blamed his equipment. After he protested this, they offered to build a roof over the fields where the waste was being spread, but he told them that this would be like building a toxic gas chamber. “They told me it was my problem. They knew it was dangerous, but their attitude was: keep your mouth shut, do the job, and don’t get in anyone’s business,” according to Guice. Eventually, a company official took her own readings, which he says confirmed his own. At this point, the company decided to build a huge stainless-steel chain-link fence around the perimeter of its property, “so you can’t see where the work is,” he told me. Once he was able to get employment elsewhere, Guice, who had been contacted by the filmmakers behind “Company Town,” decided to blow the whistle.
Reached for comment, Kelly Ferguson, the director of public affairs for Georgia-Pacific, said that . . .