‘Corporate death penalty’ for companies

Burning coal kills 52 000 people in the United States each year. Digging up that coal creates just under 52 000 jobs. A new research paper from Michigan Technological University proposes a “corporate death penalty” that shuts down industries if they kill more people than they employ.

The paper, Towards Quantifiable Metrics Warranting Industry-wide Corporate Death Penalties, was published late last month. It attempts to give a solution to the problem where individual mines and factories pollute to excessive levels, but escape any penalties because they blame other mines and factories. This then allows entire industries to continue to pump toxins into the air, and into people’s lungs.

The Michigan researchers say: “In the singular search for profits, some corporations inadvertently kill people.” If an industry — their study looks at the tobacco and coal industries — keeps killing people, they conclude that it “does not have the right to exist if it kills more people than it employs”.

They suggest that a “corporate death penalty” be applied to industrial polluters. Although their research just looks at the US, the idea is gaining traction around the world. Its basic tenet is that if an industry kills more people than it employs, it gets a few warnings to clean up its act or it gets shut down.

This does not happen at the moment. Instead, individual companies are fined when they break pollution laws.

Successive offences should mean the company is then closed. In practice, in South Africa, this rarely happens and companies are fined tens of thousands of rands instead of the up to R5-million pollution fines that they could face.

Big industrial polluters such as mines, power plants and factories argue that people who get sick from pollution cannot be linked directly to them. They blame other factories or the industry as a whole. For example, Eskom argues that pollution from burning coal in its power plants cannot be directly linked to people getting sick — or dying from — diseases such as asthma.

The utility also argues that any negative effect it has is offset by the reduction in those inhaling dirty air by replacing coal and wood in their homes with electricity.

Eskom’s argument does not take into account that power can be generated from cleaner sources of energy that don’t kill people.

Eskom did tell Parliament earlier this year that its air pollution from burning coal kills 333 people each year. Civil society groups estimate that this number is more than 3 000 people a year.

Air pollution kills 20 000 people a year in South Africa, but we do not have enough data to know the full impact of fossil fuels on the population’s health.

This makes applying the Michigan researchers’ formula to local conditions challenging. Yet the idea of a corporate death penalty is an important one in a country where companies and industries continue to get away with murder.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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