Saturday, April 10, 2010

Justice? Jury Convicts Whistle Blower

In a jury trial held this week in Las Cruces Arturo Uribe was convicted of defaming Helena Chemical Company. The jury determined that Uribe's statements did not cost the company any money (they set damages at a token $1.00), but they awarded the company $75,000 in punitive damages.

My take: Mr. Uribe has been relentless in the past few years in pointing out the very real, not imagined, sins of Helena Chemical Company, which has been cited over and over again for violations in the way it handles chemicals. Just last September the New Mexico Environment Department settled with Helena, fining it $208,000 for eleven violations of its air quality permit for its Mesquite fertilizer plant. And the very next day after the jury found Mr. Uribe guilty of defamation the NM Environment Department issued Helena a notice of violation in connection to its groundwater cleanup plan for the Mesquite facility and rejected Helena's request to operate without an air quality permit.

Like the case of the Massey coal mine in West Virginia, in which the regulatory agency did not have the authority to shut down the mine (before a mine explosion this week killed two dozen miners) in spite of repeated and serious safety violations, in New Mexico environmental law is not robust enough to allow the state to shut down plants that show a consistent pattern of disregard for complying with regulations. This year state legislators considered a "bad actor" bill which would enable the NMED to close such plants. While there were technical problems that prevented the bill from moving forward, it was no secret in Santa Fe that Helena was one of the plants the proponents of the bill had in mind. Given the relative weakness of New Mexico environmental law and the relative political power of companies like Helena, it is often only through the actions of whistle-blowers like Uribe that repeated violators get caught.

All of this appears to have escaped the attention of the jury, which was asked to focus on narrower questions, such as whether a photograph in a power point presentation by Uribe, depicting a baby with six fingers, and another depicting an explosion, constituted "defamation." Uribe claimed he was raising questions through the photographs about the possible consequences of Helena's carelessness with chemicals. Helena claimed he was lying deliberately to hurt its reputation.

In my humble opinion when you live next door to a chemical plant that has already spilled toxic material and repeatedly violated environmental regulations, in a world that doesn't seem too concerned about the legal compliance of big chemical plants in small villages, the first amendment to the constitution guarantees that you can be pretty dramatic in the way you present your case as you try to get officials to take stronger action, without finding yourself in the dock for defamation.

This lawsuit was designed to intimidate Mr. Uribe and others who might otherwise challenge the state to force Helena to behave more responsibly . Whether the jury's verdict will accomplish this intimidation is another question altogether.

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