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Greenpeace Assails Record of Waste Management Inc. : Environment: Activist group alleges 'misdeeds' of company esteemed by Wall Street. Analysts discount the criticism.

May 10, 1991|BOB SECTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Greenpeace, the group famed for seaborne ambushes on commercial whalers, on Thursday called for an assault on the blue chip investment reputation of Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest and most profitable waste dumper.

At a press conference here, officials of the organization denounced the $6-billion-a-year giant as a major polluter and urged investors to purge the Chicago-area firm's lucrative stock from their portfolios.

"While Waste Management may be cleaning up on Wall Street, they've been wreaking havoc on Main Street," charged Charles Cray, coordinator of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.

Ironically, however, some environmentalists say that while Waste Management's record is far from spotless, the company by and large operates the nation's best-run and safest disposal facilities for solid, toxic and hazardous wastes.

Meanwhile, some investment analysts who follow Waste Management said the company was getting a bum rap from Greenpeace and predicted that the group's crusade would have little or no impact on the company's stock.

"It's an economic reality we have hazardous wastes and they have to be disposed of," said Rick Eastman, an environmental analyst for William Blair & Co. It's an unpleasant business, "but its profitable and they (Waste Management) do it well," he said.

Greenpeace timed the launching of its anti-Waste Management crusade to coincide with the firm's annual stockholders meeting today in suburban Oak Brook. At the same time, the group also released a report cataloguing what it claimed were the firm's "misdeeds." They included charges of price fixing, antitrust violations, intimidation, violation of federal and state pollution laws resulting in millions of dollars in fines, and the deliberate siting of landfills and incinerators in poor communities without the wherewithal to fight back.

In its defense, the company issued a point-by-point refutation of many of the charges and accused Greenpeace of coloring its portrait of Waste Management by deliberately misrepresenting or omitting facts. Hal Gershowitz, senior vice president for the firm, said he doubted that the Greenpeace campaign would have any effect on sophisticated investors.

Indeed, David Beckwith, portfolio manager for the Freedom Environmental Fund, a mutual fund that specializes in "environmentally correct" stocks, said he wouldn't recommend divestiture. He likened the firm to a hospital. "What it does is very difficult," he said. "It might make mistakes, some employees might do bad things . . . but what they do is good for society. It's not pristine, but it's constructive environmentally."

Though Greenpeace disagrees with that assessment, spokesmen acknowledged that the primary impetus for their attack on Waste Management is philosophical. Greenpeace believes that landfill and incinerator technology is inherently flawed and its promotion by Waste Management and other firms only makes it easier and cheaper for waste generators to ignore recycling and other programs designed to reduce the production of wastes at their source.

"There is no way that waste disposal solves the problem," argued Peter Montague, a Greenpeace scientist. "It just passes it on to the next generation."

Jacqueline Warner, head of the toxic substances project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Greenpeace's objectives were laudable in the abstract but unrealistic in "a modern industrial society."

"I would rather have a Waste Management doing these things (disposal) than a fly-by-night outfit," she said.

Researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago also contributed to this story.

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