Look beyond ConAgra's generous image


Special to the Courier & Press

Tuesday July 7, 1998


On July 9, the public will have perhaps one of the last opportunities to speak out about the

ConAgra plant planned for rural Posey County farmland near the historic town of West Franklin, Ind.


The plant will release some 937 tons of normal Hexane, a chemical used in the oil-extraction process,

each year. The plant will be less than two miles from the Vanderburgh County line at the West Franklin site.


During the past few months, officials at ConAgra have sponsored fund-raising events and provided

generous financial support to various charities and civic groups in Posey and Vanderburgh counties.

This has meant a sizable financial contributions for such groups as the Posey County Community

Foundation, a $2,000 donation to the Rehabilitation Center in Mt. Vernon and cosponsorship

of the Evansville Freedom Festival.


While these donations are laudable and probably badly needed, they are no doubt designed to

polish the corporate image of this industrial Leviathan locally.


But if we are to believe observers of the Wall Street concern about corporate responsibility, the company

may have things its not telling local state and federal officials, local bankers and other interested citizens.


The Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), a Manhattan-based group dedicated to educating corporate investors

about environmental and workplace issues, has been monitoring the company's performance for several

years and does not much like what it sees.


Recently, the foundation published a book entitled "The Corporate Report Card -- Rating 250 of America's

Corporations for the Socially Responsible Investor."


In it, the group paints a rather unglamorous picture of the $28 billion corporate giant.


The CEP reports that "As one of the largest farming and livestock companies, much of ConAgra's environmental

stems from pesticides and land use issues.  ConAgra's TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) releases were the highest in

the food industry and almost 10 times worse than the industry average.  The company released 5.4 million pounds in

1994, an increase of 20 per cent from 1993.  ConAgra's hazardous waste generation and accidental spill records

were also worse than the industry average."


Furthermore, the company, in its acquisition of the Beatrice Corporation in 1990, inherited numerous cases

of litigation and environmental proceedings. 


The report states that because of environmental violations, "Beatrice is presently named (by EPA) as a potentially

responsible party at 42 Superfund sites across the country."


While the group acknowledges that ConAgra's charitable contributions to worthy causes totaled $8 million

in cash in 1996 (approximately 2 per cent of pre-tax earnings), the report goes on to grade the company

with an F for the many workplace issues where the company was fined for numerous worker safety and

health violations. 


The CEP report continues: ". . . the record of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration indicates that

ConAgra underwent 26 health and safety inspections from 1994 to 1996.  The violations reported by OSHA as a

result of the inspections include nine classified as 'willful' or 'repeat' and 114 classified as 'serious.'

The company was forced to pay $234,575 as a result of violations, or an average of $10,176 per inspection. 

In comparison, the median amount of fines per inspection for other companies in the food, beverage and

household products industries was  $1,515."


In addition to the environmental and workforce violations of the company, they also seems not to be too concerned

about the livelihoods of workers.


The report concludes that "ConAgra closed nine plants and businesses in 22 states in 1996, resulting in the loss of

6,300 jobs or 7 per cent of the company's work force. 


Stating that a major restructuring was responsible for the layoffs to improve the company's efficiency, "the company

claims that 5,346 jobs were added the following year.


With Posey County elected officials and chamber-of-commerce types rolling out the red carpet with tax abatements

and TIF (Tax-Increment Financing) bonds for infrastructure improvements for our new corporate citizen, one

wonders if the paltry guarantees of some 200 jobs at the plant is worth all of the environmental impacts on

the region, as well as the bank erosion and air concerns of riverside residents in the West Franklin area.


Posey County residents will also pay dearly through increased property taxes to pay for the TIF financing. 


Having the potential of being one of the largest point sources of volatile organic compounds in this area, it is virtually

impossible to consider the industrial impact of a facility of this nature without discussing the serious

environmental constraints it will place upon other potential economic development prospects of this entire region long

into the future.


It is for this reason that elected officials and the power establishment of Vanderburgh County should be gravely

concerned about this plant and its planned location. 


The meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. at Hovey House in Mount Vernon, Ind will be to discuss the change in zoning of the

property from "Flood Plain" to "M-2" the zoning for heavy industrial development.


Concerned citizens and elected officials from this entire region should attend this important meeting and let

their voices be heard.

David Coker is a resident of Evansville.