New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. I love the people, the food, the music, the French Quarter and the laid-back atmosphere. I got to know the town well during many business trips to the area when I worked as safety, health and environmental counsel for a chemical company that had three plants near the Big Easy. One of our plants was just across the Mississippi from New Orleans in Gretna, La.
Like the rest of Gretna, our plant was just a few feet above sea level and protected from the Mississippi by a 20-foot-high levee. This meant that during heavy downpours the entire plant could be covered in two to three feet of water. Over decades, this periodic flooding picked up all the leaks and spills of the oil-based products we manufactured there and spread them all over the plant.
In the unpaved portion of the property, this process resulted in a two-foot-deep layer of oily mud that had the consistency of Vaseline. Although this situation did not pose a particularly significant threat to human health or the environment, we did have a legal obligation to remediate such spills and it was certainly not a pretty sight.
I recall walking through the plant one time with a new plant manager named Richard, who was not accustomed to managing a manufacturing facility in which you risked being knee-deep in brown, smelly goo if you stepped in the wrong spot. During the tour, we frequently had to use wooden walkways that workers had constructed over the muddy areas so they could get around the plant.
He stopped me next to one of these areas and told me he was ashamed to be in charge of a facility that looked like this. He said, "Jim, I often wonder what would happen if I ended up on '60 Minutes,' having to explain how we justify making such a wreck of the environment and working in such filthy conditions. How could I ever explain to my grandson that I'm partly to blame for this mess?"
I didn't have a good answer for him, and the memory of that walk has stuck with me for more than a decade. I shared Richard's views about our responsibility to comply with the law, to be good environmental stewards and to provide our employees with a safe, decent place to work. The problem we had was that environmental enforcement for such infractions in Louisiana was very lax and it was unlikely that the regulators would ever insist on corrective actions. As a consequence, when faced with a multimillion-dollar cost for such a cleanup, the company's senior management consistently balked at committing the funds.
This may seem, at first blush, to be yet another tale illustrating corporate America's moral bankruptcy and its inability to self-regulate and "do the right thing." But, as in most cases, it's important to know "the rest of the story" before passing judgment on the company.
Prior to my visit to the Gretna plant, the company had invested millions in performing a comprehensive safety, health and environmental audit of all of our 50 or so manufacturing and laboratory facilities around the world. This audit resulted in the identification of several thousand violations of law or safety, health and environmental issues that needed to be addressed. Around $200 million was set aside to take corrective actions, and I participated on a team that prioritized the work. After much discussion, we established the following criteria to rank projects.
First-priority projects: those necessary to mitigate immediate or serious risks to human health and safety (regardless of whether mandated by law.)
Second-priority projects: those necessary to mitigate immediate or serious risks to the environment (regardless of whether mandated by law.)
Third-priority projects: those necessary to address known violations of law that did not pose immediate or serious risks to human health or the environment.
Fourth-priority projects: those necessary to address minor risks to human health or the environment in which there was no clear violation of law.
As you might imagine, the muck at our Gretna plant was identified by the audit as an unacceptable condition that required corrective action. But because it posed no immediate or serious risk to human health or the environment, work to remediate the soil in the plant ranked as a third-priority project. In practical terms, this meant that the muck would remain until all the first- and second-priority projects were completed and then would have to compete for funds with other third-priority projects.
Perhaps you would have taken a different approach in allocating the company's money for safety, health and environmental projects. But I think this situation illustrates well the multi-dimensional nature and complexity of making ethical business decisions. Regardless of how reasonable you may think our approach was for addressing a legacy of many years of underinvestment in our manufacturing facilities, you likely have a better appreciation now of why immediate remedial actions were not taken to clean up the muck. Nevertheless, we're lucky the '60 Minutes' cameras didn't arrive at our Gretna plant. Richard's prediction that he'd have a hard time explaining the situation would likely have been true.
I think this exemplifies the dangers of headline-grabbing, superficial, one-dimensional media coverage that frequently harms reasoned public discourse about important business ethics issues. Too often we are led to pass judgment on or vilify those the media dubs "unethical" without having a full understanding of all the relevant circumstances. So the next time you're inclined to do the same, take a moment to consider whether there may be more to the story than meets the eye.
Jim Nortz is compliance director at Bausch & Lomb Inc. and is a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of Bausch & Lomb or the RABEF. For more information about the RABEF, go to www.rochesterbusinessethics.com. Nortz can be reached at (585) 260-8960 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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