#Snowzilla Reading: The Devastating Story Of How The Kochs’ Business Practices Hurt Real People

January 23, 2016

Have cabin fever yet? Take a few minutes to read the story of the late Donald Carlson, a 23-year employee at the Koch-owned Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota. Carlson died from Leukemia at the age of 53 after Koch failed to inform him of abnormal results as a result of Benzene exposure revealed in government-mandated blood tests.

While the Kochs denied Carlson workers compensation and failed to apologize, his wife eventually settled his case with the Kochs and signed confidentiality agreement, which recently expired. In Dark Money, Doreen Carlson told Jane Mayer, “It’s just money for them, and they never have enough.. I hear they’re backing a lot of people politically and I bet it’s all about getting rid of regulations. But those regulations are for safety. It’s not to make your workers rich; it’s so they don’t’ die.” 

The Kochs have a long history of putting what’s best for their bottom line first — no matter who it hurts.

Read the full excerpt from Dark Money, Chapter 4: The Koch Method: Free-Market Mayhem (120-123):

FOR TWENTY- ONE YEARS, WHILE THE KOCHS WERE FINANCING AN ideological war aimed at freeing American business from the grip of government, Donald Carlson was cleaning up the dregs their industry left behind. Stitched to the jacket he wore to work at Koch Refining Company, the booming Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota, was the name Bull. His colleagues called him this because of his brawn and his willingness to shoulder the tasks no one else wanted to touch. “He wasn’t always the greatest guy or dad, but he got up every morning and went to work. He stepped up to the plate every day,” recalls his widow, Doreen Carlson. “If a job was too hard, they gave it to him.”

Beginning in 1974, when he was hired, Carlson worked twelve and sometimes sixteen- hour shifts at the refinery. Its profitability had proven the Kochs’ purchase of Pine Bend prophetic. It had become the largest refinery north of Louisiana with the capacity to process 330,000 barrels of crude a day, a quarter of what Canada exported to the United States. It provided over half of the gas used in Minnesota and 40 percent of that used by Wisconsin. Carlson’s job was demanding, but he enjoyed it. He cleaned out huge tanks that contained leaded gasoline, scraping them down by hand. He took samples from storage tanks whose vapors escaped with such force they sometimes blew his helmet off. He hoisted heavy loads and vacuumed up fuel spills deep enough to cause burns to his legs. Like many of the one thousand employees at the refinery, Carlson was often exposed to toxic substances. “He was practically swimming in those tanks,” his wife recalled. But Carlson never thought twice about the hazards.

“I was a young guy,” he explained later. “They didn’t tell me anything, I didn’t know anything.”

In particular, Carlson said, no one warned him about benzene, a colorless liquid chemical compound refined from crude oil. In 1928, two Italian doctors first detected a connection between it and cancer. Afterward, numerous scientific studies linked chronic benzene exposure to greatly increased risks of leukemia. Four federal agencies— the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control—have all declared benzene a human carcinogen. Asked under oath if he’d been warned about the harm it posed to his hemoglobin, Carlson replied, “I didn’t even know what hemoglobin was.”

In 1995, Carlson became too sick to work any longer at the refinery. When he obtained his company medical records, he and his wife were shocked by what they read. In the late 1970s, OSHA had issued regulations requiring companies whose workers were exposed to benzene to offer annual blood tests, and to retest, and notify workers if any abnormalities were found. Companies were also required to refer employees with abnormal results to medical specialists. Koch Refining Company had offered the annual blood tests as legally required, and Carlson had dutifully taken advantage of the regular screening. But what he discovered was that even though his tests had shown increasingly serious, abnormal blood cell counts beginning in 1990, as well as in 1992 and 1993, the company had not mentioned it to him until 1994. 

Charles Koch had disparaged government regulations as “socialistic.” From his standpoint, the regulatory state that had grown out of the Progressive Era was an illegitimate encroachment on free enterprise and a roadblock to initiative and profitability. But while such theories might appeal to the company’s owners, the reality was quite different for many of their tens of thousands of employees.

Carlson continued working for another year but grew weaker, needing transfusions of three to five pints of blood a week. Finally, in the summer of 1995, he grew too sick to work at all. At that point, his wife recalls, “they let him go. Six-months’ pay is what they gave him. It was basically his accumulated sick pay.” Carlson argued that his illness was job related, but Koch Refining denied this claim, refusing to pay him workers’ compensation, which would have covered his medical bills and continued dependency benefits for his wife and their teenage daughter. “The doctor couldn’t believe he was never put on workmen’s comp,” she added. “We were just naive. We didn’t think people would let you die. We thought, ‘They help you, don’t they?’ ”

In February 1997, twenty- three years after he joined Koch Industries, Donald Carlson died of leukemia. He was fifty-three. He and his wife had been married thirty- one years. “Almost the worst part,” she said, was that “he died thinking he’d let us down financially.” She added, “My husband was the sort of man who truly believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you would be rewarded.”

Furious at the company, Doreen waged a one- woman battle to get Koch Industries to acknowledge some responsibility for her husband’s death and apologize. “I’m looking for some accountability,” she told Tom Meersman, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For three years, Carlson pressed her legal claim. The company offered her some money but refused to call it compensation for a work-related death. It resisted until minutes before the case was about to be heard by a judge. And when it did finally agree to her terms, it did so only if she would sign a confidentiality agreement, keeping the matter private. “They never admitted it. They avoided court. There was no written record. They just gave me those little crumbs and told me to keep my mouth shut,” she recalled.

More than a dozen years later, Carlson’s confidentiality agreement had expired, and she could speak out. “I don’t think you could write what I think of Koch. You’re just collateral damage. It’s just money for them, and they never have enough.” Pressed about whether it was fair to pin the blame on the Kochs themselves, rather than on lower- level executives she dealt with, she retorted, “Charles Koch owns the refinery.” She went on, “And they want less regulations? Can you imagine? What they want is things that benefit them. They never cut into their profits. I hear they’re backing a lot of people politically, and I bet it’s all about getting rid of regulations,” she said. “But those regulations are for safety. It’s not to make your workers rich; it’s so they don’t die.” 

Carlson’s case was just one of many targeting Koch Industries’ corporate conduct in the decades after Charles took over the company. The company was expanding at a breathtaking rate into a global conglomerate with vast chemical, manufacturing, energy, trading, and refining interests. But growing at an equally astonishing pace were its legal conflicts. Rather than making peace with the government overseers who frustrated his libertarian ideals, Charles declared war. As he portrayed it, his defiance was a stand for high principle. In 1978, for instance, he wrote an impassioned call to arms to other businessmen in the Libertarian Review, arguing, “We should not cave in the moment a regulator sets foot on our doorstep . . . Do not cooperate voluntarily; instead, resist wherever and to whatever extent you legally can. And do so in the name of justice.”

It’s difficult to disentangle Charles’s philosophical opposition to regulations from his financial interest in avoiding them. As he described it, he was trying to “unceasingly advance the cause of liberty” in the face of “arrogant, intrusive, totalitarian laws.” Critics such as Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? who grew up in Kansas watching the Kochs, saw it quite differently. “Libertarianism is supposed to be all about principles, but what it’s really about is political expedience. It’s basically a corporate front, masked as a philosophy.” What is indisputable is that whatever the motivations were, in the quarter century between 1980 and 2005, under Charles Koch’s leadership, his company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance.

Paid for by American Bridge 21st Century Foundation