A Story of Almosts

You almost have to admire Perdue. Almost.

Nearly forty years ago, after witnessing the downfall of water quality across the nation, the United States passed a sweeping set of comprehensive environmental laws designed to bring some degree of corporate responsibility to industrial America's polluters. Industries would, for the first time, be held accountable for their waste discharges through a transparent permitting and monitoring system. Today, all industries in the US have to ensure that their polluting wastes are properly disposed of and don't cause undue harm to communities or the environment.

Almost all. Perdue has managed to worm its way out of its responsibilities. It's ingenious, really; Perdue owns and manages a vast meat manufacturing empire, reaping all the benefits and profits of an industrial operation that enjoyed $4.6 billion in sales in 2009. And, at the end of the immensely profitable day, they get to walk away from their monstrous manure mess. How? Through the very clever use of "independent contractors" to do their dirty work for them.

Some years back Perdue was found to be using contract workers to collect chickens for them. These "independent" chicken catchers were forced to work 12-hour shifts in horrendous conditions for days on end, with no paid overtime. It took a federal court ruling in Maryland to force the company to treat its workers as what they truly were: Perdue employees, who deserved all the labor law protections and benefits that are the right of workers in this country.

Perdue's labor transgressions are matched by its environmental misdeeds. They've managed to stick all responsibility for their billions of pounds of waste on someone else: local chicken growers, chickensitters, who have neither the means nor resources to properly dispose of even a fraction of the manure produced by Perdue's birds. Perdue owns the chickens. It owns the feed given and the drugs administered to them. The company decides how the chickens are to be raised. It dictates what conditions and when it's time for slaughter. Every six weeks or so, Perdue shows up to pick up its chickens and drop off a new batch. What they leave behind are mountains of polluting and unusable waste produced by their chickens. It's all orchestrated through unconscionable adhesion contracts that leave their growers burdened, broke and in violation of the law. No other industry in the country has managed to game the system in quite the same way. You almost have to respect Perdue for pulling it off. Almost.

And who could not look, almost with awe, on Perdue's ability to mobilize heads of state, executive branch agencies and entire legislatures to run interference for them when someone finally calls them to task and tries to make them take responsibility for their mountains of manure. We saw it when we filed a suit in federal court against Perdue for pollution pouring from one of its contract farms in Maryland.

It's almost downright impressive when, a week after being sued for violating the Clean Water Act, you can walk into the Governor's office and get him to do a public relations dance for you by having him hand you an award for environmental stewardship. And how almost remarkable is it that Perdue has the ability to call state senators (some of whom they make campaign contributions to) and get them to introduce into the state budget a hold on public funding for the environmental law school clinic that is representing the Bay's interests in that suit? It was all done, as one state senator said, in his best Vito Corleone impression, to "send a message."

It's almost extraordinary when Perdue actually gets the Maryland Department of the Environment, the state agency responsible for protecting the Bay, to blame raccoons for their mess (no wonder they wear masks). Or, even more amazing, almost, is when a company can get that agency to spread misinformation, as they did when MDE said that they tested piles of waste on an Eastern Shore facility that's named in the suit and found no chicken manure in it. MDE later admitted that they never actually tested the pile, which was surprising. Almost.

Awards that deflect attention, senatorial strong arm tactics, misinformation campaigns, and dumping their waste on the backs of others. It's all almost very impressive. Perdue would be almost worthy of awe, admiration, respect and wonder, if it weren't for one problem: the downward spiraling health of the Bay from pollution caused by Perdue's irresponsible and unethical waste disposal practices, political interference and improper influence purchasing.

Perdue's irresponsible practices mean that there's one more "almost" here. Chesapeake Bay is almost dead. And for that we have, in part, Perdue to thank. And I don't mean almost.