Do you hear that sound coming from the Texas Gulf Coast? That mixture of shouts and cheers and people banging on pots and pans, of papers filed and gavels slammed, of cash hitting the table and grown men bursting into tears? That, my friends, is the sound of justice. The EPA and the Department of Justice finally nailed the Koch brothers for their willful destruction of the environment. They did it! At least, that’s what they want you to believe.
When I first heard about the news about the Justice Department fining the Koch brothers and ordering millions in renovations and improvements for polluting Port Arthur, Texas, I was thrilled. Finally, these titans of benzone would be held accountable. Finally, someone would pay for filling the air with murder, for befouling the seas with death, for dropping plagues across the land. I was dancing and cheering and high-fiving strangers. Then I dug a little deeper into the settlement and my thrill disappeared. I stopped dancing. There was no reason to cheer. And the strangers who had been high-fiving me moments ago now wanted me to sit down and eat my Big Mac like a normal person.
First of all, the DOJ didn’t fine Koch Industries. The DOJ fined Forest Hills Industries, one of the many, many companies owned by Koch Industries. So saying that the DOJ stuck it to the Koch brothers in this case is a lot like saying I stuck it to Donald Trump the time I broke an ashtray at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. (By the way, that ashtray had it coming.) Second, the fine, i.e. the extent of the real money paid, was $350,000. Now $350,000 is obviously an insane amount of money for you or me, enough money for a man to get even after a series of disastrous trips to Atlantic City, but for someone like the Koch brothers, whose company is valued at over 100 billion dollars, it is essentially pocket change. On a side note, if either of the Koch brothers wanted to empty their pockets in my general direction, it would be appreciated. The folks from the Taj are persistent.
Okay, so the fine isn’t that big, but what about the $30 million in improvements, renovations and upgrades? Fixing leaking equipment, retrofitting the diesel vehicles of Port Arthur, recycling waste gases – those are all good things, right? Sure, those are great. But the bigger issue here is Port Arthur itself. The town is in rough shape. And Forest Hills is not the only game in town. Stuck between Houston, Galveston, Lake Charles and Beaumont, surrounded by oil rigs and processing plants, Port Arthur is pollution central. People are getting sick here. Rates of reproductive disorders, birth defects and cancer are higher here than the rest of Texas. No wonder it’s been named one of the EPA’s Environmental Justice Showcase Communities. The EPA wants to help the people in the community, and more importantly, they want you to think that they’re helping the people in the community.
Which brings me to the most interesting part of the settlement. Forest Hills has agreed to pay $350,000 “to implement and complete a project for the purchase and installation of environmentally beneficial energy efficiency technologies, including, but not limited to windows, doors, lighting and appliances, to reduce the energy demand in low income residences.” That’s how the government is prepared to help some of is most at-risk citizens, with fluorescent lights and weather sealing. They are literally spending the money on window dressing.
I have to admit, this is an odd form of justice. It looks a lot like a travesty of justice. That’s exactly what it looks like. The fines and fees and costs of renovation will probably be covered by insurance, costing the Koch brothers exactly zero dollars in the end. This is the equivalent of my driving an SUV through an elementary school, killing 24 children and being told that, as punishment, I would have to buy a new SUV. Thank God I have insurance. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.