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Environmental Espionage: Inside a Chemical Company's Louisiana Spy Op

Facing lawsuits and activist outcry following a massive chemical spill, Condea Vista called in Beckett Brown International's for-hire spies to infiltrate its opposition.

| Tue May 20, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
Two operatives for a now-defunct Maryland-based private security firm, which spied on environmental groups and other targets for corporate clients, are now in the crosshairs of a Louisiana lawyer representing plaintiffs exposed to dangerous toxins that leaked from a pipeline operated by chemical manufacturer Condea Vista. As Mother Jones revealed in April, from the mid-1990s to at least 2000 the security firm, Beckett Brown International, gathered intelligence for corporations and the PR firms they employed. Using methods that ranged from covert surveillance to dumpster diving to infiltrating activist groups, the firm, which was founded by former Secret Service agents, sought to obtain inside information that could be used as ammunition against activist campaigns. One of BBI's clients was Condea Vista, a company whose chemical spill in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is considered among the largest in US history.

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BBI's activities were brought to light by John Dodd, a Maryland businessman who invested in the company before learning of its covert practices. Earlier this year, Dodd opened his collection of company documents to Mother Jones. Those documents, contained in cardboard boxes piled high in a storage facility, trace the course of various investigations against activist groups. Throughout the files are references to something called the "Lake Charles Project," an effort by Condea Vista—then a subsidiary of the German petrochemical company RWE-DEA and now part of SASOL, the South African mining, chemical, and synfuels giant—to fend off protests and legal actions mounted in response to its pollution of the region. At the time, Condea was fighting civil suits by workers who had been sickened by leaks from the Lake Charles pipeline, as well as campaigns by local environmental activists. Condea and the crisis management firm it hired to mute the controversy, Nichols-Dezenhall, collectively paid BBI at least $200,000 for its services in Louisiana, according to billing records.

In addition to intelligence reports, client briefings, internal emails, and billing records laying out the Lake Charles Project, Mother Jones has also obtained video copies of depositions of two key players in the operation: Jay Bly and Tim Ward, the BBI operatives who oversaw intelligence gathering efforts on Condea opponents. The depositions, taken last fall by Lake Charles attorney Perry R. Sanders Jr., who is representing workers who say they were harmed during the cleanup of the spill (and who was not the source of the videos), will be entered in state court in Louisiana as part of an effort to force Condea Vista to come clean about what exactly it ordered the hired spooks to do.

Attorneys familiar with the litigation said that bringing Ward and Bly into the case—and potentially showing that Condea, through BBI, engaged in unsavory, if not illegal, surveillance practices—could influence a jury to set higher punitive damages.

The bulk of BBI's covert operations in the Lake Charles area took place in the middle to late 1990s, during trial preparations for a host of lawsuits brought by workers who had been exposed to high levels of ethylene dichloride (EDC), a solvent used in the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) industry that is a probable carcinogen and can also cause permanent damage to organs and the central nervous system. Since the mid-1980s, Condea had routed EDC through a pipeline, owned by the oil company Conoco, that stretched from Conoco's docks on the Calcasieu River in Westlake to Condea's chemical plant in Lake Charles. The lawsuits alleged that the chemical company was aware of the high risk of leaks from the deteriorating, 40-year-old pipeline, yet continued to use it to transport, and at times even store, the dangerous chemical.

While some of the litigation has since been settled, Sanders and his co-counsel continue to litigate cases brought by plaintiffs—500 of them—who say they were harmed as a result of the spill. Seeking damages for his clients, Sanders has charged Conoco, its former parent company Dupont, and SASOL with, among other things, "reckless disregard for the public safety and environment." An initial complaint filed in 2004 accuses Conoco specifically of "engaging in a corporate policy of destroying documents that would reveal the true extent of the spill and Conoco's culpability." Also named in suits filed by Sanders are R.W. Equipment Company and Anco Industries, companies hired to assist in the cleanup of the spill. (In a statement provided to Mother Jones, SASOL, which bought Condea Vista in 2001, said it had no comment on the litigation or the events surrounding BBI's Lake Charles operation, since it purchased the chemical manufacturer years after the spill occurred. A lawyer representing Conoco in the Lake Charles litigation did not return a call for comment.)

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