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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Brown Bayou

Air Date: Week of

For the past three years in Louisiana, one of the longest labor disputes in U.S. history has been underway with the Bayou Steel Corporation's poor environmental record at its core. Debbie Elliott reports from LaPlace, Louisiana on a new alliance of steelworker labor and environmentalists.


CURWOOD: Many of the strongest labor unions in this country involve workers in polluting industries. So it's not uncommon for union leaders to see environmental activism as a threat to jobs. But at the Bayou Corporation Steel Plant in Louisiana, one of the nation's longest running strikes has prompted the union leadership to link up with environmental activists. The Steel Worker's Union is mounting what's called a corporate campaign. Part of that campaign targets the company's environmental record. As Debbie Elliot reports, the alliance has the company saying it's unfair.

(Men talking in the rain)

ELLIOT: It's another hot rainy day in LaPlace, Louisiana. Across from the main entrance to Bayou Steel, about a half dozen steel workers seek shelter under a blue plastic tarp. The tent is headquarters of a makeshift camp that has emerged since the local 9121 went out on strike here 3 years ago. There's a small shed with cots, a portable toilet, a pay phone, and plastic lawn chairs.

(Motors running)

ELLIOT: When he's not trying to dissuade delivery trucks from entering the plant, striker Frank Alexis will tell you about the contract dispute with Bayou management. And he also targets Howard Meyers, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Bayou Steel Corporation.

ALEXIS: This man has 13 different locations where he has plants and mills and etc. Even at Tennessee, the one he just bought. Out of the 13 he got 4 Superfund sites, the worst is in Dallas. That was a smelting plant. You ought to see that community, that whole community was destroyed. It's not even livable.

ELLIOT: These steel workers can also recite a litany of environmental fines levied on other plants under Howard Meyers' control. For dumping hazardous waste in California, for exporting toxic substances to Mexico, for violating lead emissions standards in Wallkill, New York, and for illegally discharging lead into an Indianapolis waterway. Maurice Simoneaux is the safety and heath representative for the local steel workers.

SIMONEAUX: The water system in Indiana had willful violations. They were checking to make sure the monitors were off the city and all that and then they dumped their pollution in the water system, and 2 guys are serving a year in jail for it. Howard Meyers got off with just paying a fine. Howard Meyers should have been the one in jail, really.

ELLIOT: If Simoneaux sounds like a member of the Sierra Club rather than a steel worker, it's because the environment plays a crucial role in this labor dispute. Along with picket duty and complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, the union is
hitting Bayou Steel with what's called a corporate campaign. Essentially, it's a negative information blitz to pressure their managers into settling with the union to avoid tarnishing the company's image. The steel workers hired an environmental consultant to research Bayou and its affiliates. What they found, according to union local president Ron Ferraro, was a pattern of environmental and safety violations.

SIMONEAUX: It seems that Howard Meyers's philosophy is to locate his plants in low income areas, take advantage of tax breaks, and then when the pollution and the environment gets too bad, they shut them down and take off and leave the government to do the clean-up.

(Train whistles)

ELLIOT: The Bayou steel complex spans more than 250 acres along the levee of the Mississippi River. Just inside Bayou's front gate are 2 football field-sized scrap heaps nearly 30 feet tall.

(Trains pass and clank)

ELLIOT: All day long, rail cars carry loads of scrap metal to the mill, where it's fed into an electric arc furnace that melts it into steel billets. The process leaves a layer of white powder everywhere in the mill. The dust contains trace elements of metal oxides, including lead. But Al Puliam, Bayou's manager for environmental health and safety, says it's not hazardous.

PULIAM: Public health is based on ambient air quality. There is no ambient air quality problem in this neighborhood or at our fence line. That is the bottom line.

ELLIOT: For local environmentalists the bottom line is a lawsuit they filed against Bayou for alleged air pollution violations. They claim Bayou's lead emissions threaten the health of the hundreds of families that live in breathing distance of the plant. Bayou officials say the environmentalists are conspiring with the union to damage the company as part of the corporate campaign. But Shey Clark, with the St. John's Citizens for Environmental Justice, disagrees.

CLARK: It's coincidental that the workers are striking and that we're having our suit. Obviously, we have similar concerns. Obviously, the company is a bad actor.

ELLIOT: The steel workers say they have a moral obligation to share their findings with citizen groups, stockholders, and environmental regulators. But Bayou officials liken the union's tactics to a smear campaign and say it's illegal. Bayou Steel and RSR have filed lawsuits against the steel workers' union, claiming their corporate campaign is a violation of the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act. Hank Vasquez is Bayou's vice president for human resources.

VASQUEZ: This is a coordinated effort. That is, it's not just a case of an individual claiming they've been wronged. This is an organization who has experts that do nothing, but sit and plan, determine how they're going to do the most harm possible against this other entity, which is Bayou Steel.

ELLIOT: Although he won't be specific, Vasquez says the union's corporate campaign has hurt the company financially.

VASQUEZ: Productivity is good but we're still having to face the legal expenses, the distraction from running the plant. All the time that we spend responding to these unfounded accusations we could be focusing on the plant being even more productive out there.

(Men talking in heavy rain.)

ELLIOT: At a time when union rights and environmental protection are under scrutiny in Congress and the courts, the standoff here in Louisiana is being closely watched by the nation's environmental community and labor management interests. In addition to the racketeering suit, Congressional hearings are looking into the legality of union corporate campaigns. Regardless of the outcome says local president Ron Ferraro, steel workers in LaPlace know more about environmental health today.

FERRARO: We've become a lot more educated now. We know what to look for if something's being buried or something's being done wrongly or illegally, and we know what agencies and we know how to handle it now to where we don't have to sit back and let it happen to ourselves, our employees, or the community any more.

ELLIOT: For Living on Earth, this is Debbie Elliot reporting.



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