At the time of this writing, West Virginia’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, has ordered Freedom Industries to begin removing the above-ground storage tanks and associated piping and machinery at its Charleston chemical facility, which was responsible for a Jan. 9 spill that contaminated the water supply for an estimated 300,000 West Virginians. And while the investigation to determine what caused the chemical spill, how much was spilled, and what the long-term consequences are is ongoing, the initial response by some supporters of the coal industry has been more pushback than remorse for the damaged community surrounding the plant.
According to a report by The New York Times, West Virginia’s junior senator and former governor, Joe Manchin III, attended an event sponsored by the Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in Washington shortly after the spill, where he said, “You feel like everyone’s turned against you,” and vowed to continue to fight back against proposed new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal. Manchin, a democrat, has also called for a repeal of the Clean Water Act on mountaintop mining.1
Certainly, the debate for and against regulation is complex, and there are strong cases to be made on both sides depending on the issue at hand. That said, in this situation, I think it’s fair to question the idea of taking a stance against regulation at a time when hundreds of thousands of your constituents are without access to potable water for drinking, cooking, and bathing due to a chemical spill.
In considering the Freedom Industries spill and, in a larger sense, the adversarial culture that puts industry and regulators at opposite ends of what seems to be a never-ending tug-of-war, I got to thinking about the role of business ethics in this story.
Business schools in the U.S. have ramped up their business ethics curriculum in response to corporate wrongdoing in recent years. But many of these programs are in their formative stages of development and need to be refined to better equip our future business and industry leaders to ethically respond to modern challenges in the face of the temptations of increased profits and/or reduced costs. In an article published in Inside Higher Ed, Terry L. Price frames it well: “It is not enough for business students to hear yet again that certain behaviors are generally prohibited by morality. They must also come to see that these prohibitions apply to them even when morality conflicts with self-interest, the bottom line, and the interests of investors.”2
Ethics in business can often be a murky subject, but if we can address more of our missteps in business along the way and hold ourselves up to a higher ethical standard, perhaps we can avoid more of the catastrophic failures that have recently debilitated and damaged not only our communities, but also the businesses that serve them.
Thanks for your readership,
— Matt Migliore, Director of Content
- “Chemical Spill Muddies the Picture in a State Wary of Regulations,” Trip Gabriel, Michael Wines and Coral Davenport, The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2014.
- “How to Teach Business Ethics,” Terry L. Price, Inside Higher Ed, June 4, 2007.