Politics & Government

Book details Koch Industries pollution

Chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity David Koch speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 21, 2015.
Chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity David Koch speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 21, 2015. Associated Press

Charles and David Koch spent the past several years and millions of dollars building a conservative movement in American politics. A new book out this week, “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer, chronicles the rise of their influence during the Obama era.

A big part of their focus, and that of their peers, has been to shrink the impact of tax, fiscal, and especially environmental regulation. That position, Mayer points out, happens to work to the benefit of Koch Industries, whose operations span oil refining, paper making, and synthetic fiber.

“They said they were driven by principle,” Mayer writes, “but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.”

While a few legal violations could be understood as misfortunate accidents, Koch Industries’ pattern of pollution was striking not just for its egregiousness but also for its willfulness.

Jane Mayer, author of “Dark Money”

Her book, already denounced by the company, draws readers through a history of Koch Industries, its environmental impact, and subsequent litigation. She writes: “While a few legal violations could be understood as misfortunate accidents, Koch Industries’ pattern of pollution was striking not just for its egregiousness but also for its willfulness.”

But just how egregious? Such allegations are often hard to prove. Yet, as it turns out, big polluters are required to tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency how much toxic waste they produce, and what they do with it. The information is publicly available through a little-known database called the Toxic Release Inventory, which includes 689 chemicals and classes of chemicals that can cause either cancer, “significant adverse acute” human health effects, or noteworthy environmental damage.

Here’s how the Kochs stacked up in 2014, the most recent year with complete data.

1. Big waste, but not the biggest

Koch Industries has consistently appeared among the top five U.S. producers of toxic waste. In 2014 the company trailed two others, mining industry giant Teck American and Dow Chemical, in the Toxic Release Inventory.

Third place isn’t so bad when compared with 2012, the year Koch Industries topped the list of several thousand companies. Its toxic waste fell by a third since then.

2. Waste doesn’t equal pollution

Not all of that toxic stuff is emitted into the atmosphere or waterways. The EPA divides such hazardous waste into several categories, based on what happens to it, whether it’s recycled, burned for energy, treated, or released into air or water.

The largest fraction of Koch Industries’ waste is treated, which means the toxic chemicals are destroyed before they can be emitted. The company burns the next largest portion of its toxic waste for heat or to generate electricity, and a smaller amount is recycled and used in new operations. Eight percent is released into the environment. That’s the fourth-highest environmental release in 2014, according to the EPA data. Koch Industries’ top chemical waste is methanol, which is commonly used in industry as a solvent, fuel, or antifreeze, followed by nitrates and ammonia.

Carbon dioxide isn’t typically thought of as a toxic gas, unless you’re trapped in a room filled with it. Among toxic waste generators, the Kochs produce far more of the gas most responsible for climate change, and rank 12th among all companies in the greenhouse gas pollution database.

Court losses a few decades ago led Koch Industries to better comply with environmental rules, Mayer writes. She cites Charles Koch’s 2007 book, “The Science of Success,” where he writes, “We were caught unprepared by the rapid increase in regulation, politicization, and litigation” in the 1990s. “While business was becoming increasingly regulated, we kept thinking and acting as if we lived in a pure market economy.”

3. Lots of waste in lots of places

It’s hard to compete with mining when it comes to producing a lot of pollution from just a few sites. Teck American tops the toxic waste list in 2014 with lead and zinc mining in Alaska. What the Kochs’ industrial facilities lack in mining industry scale, however, they make up for in number — 129 plants generate toxic waste, according to the TRI.

A Koch Industries spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on the EPA numbers. The company has updated its official response to Mayer’s book, which was published on Tuesday.

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