Eastman: When Capital Takes Precedence Over Human Lives

The company’s economic power in the region has kept criticisms about pollution, mismanagement and environmental injustices at bay in local media.

The local industrial powerhouse has experienced little organized opposition over environmental injustices, thanks to its economic power and ability to engage in corporate censorship.

Eastman is one of the largest plastic producers in the world, located in a valley region where cancer and respiratory disease is higher than the national average.

If you are a resident of Kingsport, TN, the sound of an explosion more than likely awoke you on the morning of Monday, January 31st. Or if you live in the Tri-Cities, you have almost certainly heard about what took place just off the Long Island of The Holston River. Eastman referred to what occurred that morning as “a steam line failure” to which The Rogersville Review correctly referred to as a “Steam line explosion that sent asbestos into neighboring areas.” It is not exactly shocking, but infuriating nonetheless, that an explosion that caused wastewater to flow into the Holston as well as sent asbestos into the atmosphere has not been questioned by the media about its health effects.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is known to cause serious health hazards to both humans and animals, the most serious of which are tumorous cancers. You might be familiar with the late-night class action settlement commercials about Mesothelioma. In fact, those commercials are the by-product of the United States’ use of asbestos in building materials all throughout the 20th century – and still to this day in some Black neighborhood housing. Today, most countries that the UN considers “developed” have completely outlawed the use of asbestos as a building material, but not here in the United States, because profits are our only motivating force.

There are many reasons why we, at the New Socialist Network, feel the need to cover this. As mentioned earlier, we had to go as far as The Rogersville Review to find a publication that was actually reporting on the facts of what happened in Kingsport and not just printing out what amounts to a press release sent out by Eastman PR teams themselves. If you are used to hearing about how anything that occurs at Eastman is not the fault of the company itself, it is purposeful. No one challenges what Eastman states as fact, because why criticize the company that puts food on the table and a roof over your head?

Though the company provides jobs within the region, that does and should not absolve them of the disastrous health effects their plants have left on our region’s people and especially their workers. Time after time, the news takes what the company states as an objective fact – that they cannot contest and refuse to press any further to get to the truth about the health effects these frequent occurrences cause. It is incredibly difficult to find any source on the health effects because the company and news sources consistently ignore the issue.

** For context as to how a corporation like Eastman can engage in corporate censorship against local media outlets and reporters, we recommend reading Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality – which outlines the ways in which corporate ad revenues can influence coverage of events.**

The frequency of incidents, such as the steam-line explosion on January 31st, not only calls into question competency on their part to prevent the issue, but it also highlights the refusal of the company to ever acknowledge any health effects that may accompany these incidents. Eastman is working with chemicals that are dangerous to human health, therefore the notion that these incidents are harmless every single time is completely absurd. The Times-News article itself on the recent incident quoted an official who stated, “At one point, almost 20,000 gallons of wastewater per minute were being drained into the river.” Wastewater into the Holston River and asbestos traveling through Kingsport neighborhoods are indubitably NOT harmless.

The documented health issues attributable to Eastman date back decades ago, speculatively we can assume since its inception. In an excerpt from Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, it is estimated that “In the surrounding area the rate of babies born with abnormalities is more than twice the state average.” In addition to the detrimental effects on the overall population, workers face the brunt of health issues that can be attributed to Eastman. Breathing problems, lung damage, blood disorders, and even paralysis are some of the health issues that Eastman employees have faced. Workers who face these issues must pay their own hospital bills, despite the massive amount of resources and money that Eastman has. This issue highlights the need for unionization by Eastman workers to obtain rightful compensation not only for their wages, but the detrimental health impacts Eastman refuses to pay for.

It is long past due to criticize Eastman for the multiplicity of issues they have created in the Tri-Cities. Decades of incidents like the “steam-line failure” and public health concerns continue to go overlooked by the press and most of the population because the concern lies not on the people but on the profit that Eastman can accumulate.

This is inherently how capitalism functions and part of why it is an immensely unethical system built on the accumulation of profit with no interest in how it affects human lives and the environment.

As eco-socialists, it is important for us to understand capitalism as a system that seeks only to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. There is very little room for any serious discussion of environmental justice in such a system, where profit is put before all else. It is fundamentally unwilling and unable to address concerns about pollution that threatens workers’ health and the environment as a whole amid the fight against climate change.

Today, the choice isn’t just “socialism or barbarism” – it’s socialism or extinction.

Update: As the investigation into the incident progresses, WJHL is now also reporting that the “Jan. 31 Eastman steam line failure led to 3,000-plus pounds of excess volatile organic compound emissions.”

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