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Economy & Business

Rare labor-business coalition resurrects bill protecting Doe Run mining company

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2013 - For Missouri Rep. Genise Montecillo, her decision to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill limiting court-ordered damages against the Doe Run Co. came down to one thing: organized labor.

Montecillo, D-St. Louis County, had initially voted against the bill, HB650, last spring -- along with most of the Missouri House’s Democrats.

But Montecillo is the daughter of a union ironworker. She changed her mind for the veto session when she was told of the possibility that union workers could be hired to build Doe Run’s new processing plant in Herculaneum.

That, according to Montecillo, was “the heart” of her vote. “The Iron Workers said it was something that was needed – it was work,” she said. “I made a commitment to my constituents … that I would do everything I can to support jobs and get people back to work.”

Jeff Aboussie, secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, said construction unions targeted supportive legislators like Montecillo in an active campaign to override Nixon’s veto.

Although the council and other labor groups agree with Nixon “99 percent of the time," Aboussie said, they parted ways when it came to HB650, also known as the “Doe Run" bill.

Instead, key labor organizations sided with Doe Run and some of its business allies in an unusual coalition in the state Capitol. And labor is taking credit for much of the 16-vote swing in favor of the measure.

The Doe Run bill had passed with only 94 votes last spring. But during the General Assembly’s veto session, the bill snagged 110 votes in the House – one more than the minimum 109 needed. In the Senate, the pro-override number was 26, three more than needed.

Many of the Democrats who overrode the bill came from the St. Louis area: progressive Democrats, urban Democrats and Jefferson County Democrats, who joined the bulk of the state's Republicans.

Nixon sought assistance from such longtime allies as U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who agreed to call legislators in his district -- especially members of the Black Caucus -- to help the governor. Clay’s effort failed.

The message from supportive labor groups and business had been the same. The bill was touted as a way to protect jobs, and to keep the Jefferson County-based lead company in business – especially as it faces costly lawsuits.

Their success was arguably the most significant veto override achieved during the veto session. Although nine of Nixon’s other vetoes also were overridden, the bulk of those bills aren’t seen as having the legal impact of the Doe Run bill – as long as it’s upheld in court.

Opponents of the bill include the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, which is promising a legal fight.  The association contends that the bill violates the state's constitution because, among other things, it contains too many unrelated provisions.

Affect on pending lawsuits

Sponsored by state Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, the bill originally was drafted to change the name of an office building. But over the course of the session, it became a “Christmas tree” – the term used to describe bills that get loaded up with other provisions.

Among the things added to the bill was statutory language that bar any non-economic, or “punitive," damage awards directed at mining sites that ceased operations prior to 1975, if owners “made or are making good faith efforts to remediate such sites.”

If the site doesn’t meet that threshold, punitive damages would be limited to $2.5 million.

The “mining sites” wording was intentionally aimed at applying to Doe Run. Some residents contend that old debris left over lead mining, called “chat piles,” has contaminated their property or caused illnesses for their families and children.

The Doe Run bill already is affecting about a dozen lawsuits that had been filed against the new Doe Run owners. The owners note that the contaminated waste came from previous owners of the company -- who were complying with federal regulations in place at the time. 

The suits were filed before the state’s current $500,000 limit on non-economic damages was put into effect. The suits primarily accuse Doe Run's current owners of improper remediation of the inherited waste.

Within days of last week's override vote, a number of the lawsuits were settled. Some are still pending.

Doe Run’s executives are concerned that they could face damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2011, a St. Louis jury ruled against the Fluor Corp. for lead pollution, and awarded $320 million in damages.

Nixon, a lawyer and former attorney general – with close political ties to the trial lawyers group – had vetoed the bill, in part, because he said it was unfair and improper for legislators to pass a bill intended to benefit only one company. Nixon also objected to the bill's restrictions on those who sued, saying it improperly limits their legal rights.

A question of jobs

Jane Dueker, a St. Louis-based attorney and lobbyist for Doe Run (and a prominent Democrat), said in an interview that the bill was necessary to keep Doe Run in business.

Without Doe Run, she said, there would be no private company to clean up the “chat piles” or provide at least some compensation to residents who believe their lives or land had been harmed.

Dueker contended that Nixon’s veto, if it had been sustained, could have forced the lead production facilities to close. Doe Run is the last primary lead-mining facility in North America.

Nixon told reporters earlier this summer that he doubted that the mine would close, because of its unique status. “The lead is here,’’ he said. “Not in China.”

But that argument didn’t carry weight with labor leaders like Aboussie, or supportive legislators such as Rep. Steve Webb, D-Florissant and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Webb found himself aligned with Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. Both men cited the same argument in interviews: the Doe Run jobs were important, especially in Jefferson County.

"Those folks employ a lot of people,” said Webb, referring to Doe Run. “And at the end of the day, we can’t afford to lose any industry here. We can’t afford to lose any industry in this state. Some people contend that ‘You know what, they’re not going to leave’ … But we don’t have time to play with people’s jobs. We don’t have time to play with their lives – their livelihood.”

A matter of money

Opponents of the bill contended that the measure was aimed at protecting profits, not jobs. Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, said in his floor speech that his constituents “were tired of the perception of favoritism in politics.”

“I want to dispel one myth about this bill right away,” Wright said. “This bill is not about jobs. This bill is just about money. The jobs argument that we’ve heard about this bill from lobbyists all summer long wouldn’t hold up in a first semester business school course. And here’s why – if this company’s plants are profitable today, then it will remain in the interest of the company to keep them open and operating and running, no matter what legal liabilities the company may carry on the plant’s balance sheet from past bad acts.”

Dueker credited the hard – and longstanding – work by the bill’s backers, who had been engaged ever since the governor vetoed the bill. “The entire summer was spent meeting one-on-one with all these legislators over and over again,” she said. “Getting them information. Setting up mine tours. Setting up discussions.”

Aboussie also credits the work that the building-trades council did to forge a strong working relationship with Doe Run’s owners. “This relationship that we’ve been courting with Doe Run began about two years ago,” he said.

With the override now successful, Aboussie is optimistic that the result will be more good-paying union jobs as Doe Run expands its operations. “Hopefully, it will create opportunities in the union construction industry,” he said.

Dueker and Webb also point to a possibility that the Doe Run bill might help out another industry – electric cars. The two said that Emerald Automotive – an electric van company with plans to build a plant in north St. Louis County – could use lead-based batteries to reduce costs.

Doe Run has invested money in Emerald Automotive. The lead in the batteries, of course, would come from its mine.

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