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First McWane exec to be sentenced for conspiracy and obstructing OSHA enforcement (4/20)

April 20, 2009
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Responding to the sentencing of the first of four N.J. executives of the Birmingham, Ala.-based McWane Corp. in Federal District court, Change to Win Health and Safety Coordinator Eric Frumin urged Congress to make “fundamental changes in the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act” that created OSHA in 1970.

“Like too many other heartless and negligent employers, McWane managers believed they could kill their workers, lie to inspectors, obstruct federal investigations – and get away with it,” said Frumin. “At least for McWane’s managers, those days should finally end today.”

McWane’s former N.J. Plant Manager John Prisque was convicted in 2006 on six separate counts, with a maximum imprisonment of 41 years. “We hope Mr. Prisque’s fate is a warning to all other unscrupulous managers – even with the serious gaps in the OSHA law, you too can suffer severe consequences when you flout the law,’ said Frumin.

Federal District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper began sentencing hearings today for Prisque and the three other former McWane managers convicted in 2006 on a total of 31 federal felony counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and multiple violations of the Clean Water Act. The conspiracy charge alone carries a maximum five-year sentence.

“These convictions have also shown how weak the OSHA law really is,” said Frumin. “Killing workers and lying to inspectors is still only a misdemeanor under the OSHA law – compared to serious felonies under the laws used by OSHA, EPA and the Justice Department in this case.”

Congress will soon consider new legislation to close the severe loopholes in the OSHAct, with hearings beginning next week in Washington, DC. “We call up on the Congress to quickly take up this legislation, and give OSHA the tools it needs to really hold employers accountable. Right now, unless there’s an environmental problem, OSHA is shooting blanks when it wants to prosecute the really bad actors like McWane and Mr. Prisque,” said Frumin.

McWane Corp. is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of steel pipe. According to David Uhlmann, who as chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section led the multi-district prosecutions of McWane and its corporate officials, McWane was "one of the worst and most persistent violators of our nation's worker safety and environmental laws.

“McWane and its plant managers treated workers as if they were expendable and the environment as a dumping ground for their wastes. The punishment should fit the crime, and there is no disputing that these were egregious crimes," he said. Uhlmann also urged the Congress to address the loopholes in the OSHAct: "Why should prosecutors have to search for felonies under our environmental laws when employers commit knowing violations of the worker safety laws that kill or maim their employees? We need to fix this injustice now," said Uhlmann.

A 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the New York Times and PBS Frontline of massive OSHA and environmental violations at McWane plants in five states revealed some of the worst examples of criminal employer misconduct in the 35-year history of the OSHAct as well as multiple environmental laws. The resulting federal investigation sparked a 33-count indictment at McWane’s Phillipsburg, N.J. subsidiary Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe. “OSHA’s inspectors in N.J. worked diligently to uncover this conspiracy, get to the facts and make sure that workers are protected,” said Frumin. “But their job shouldn’t be this difficult – workers in N.J. and across the country deserve the same protection as wildlife and natural resources.”

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