Fluoride Action Network

ALCOA’s $1 million fine for shipping fluoride chemicals that could be used for chemical weapons

Source: Federal Register | August 5th, 1999
Industry type: Chemical Weapons

See full Federal Register report

Recommended Decision and Order

On Friday, February 26, 1999, the Federal Register published the Decision and Order issued by the Under Secretary for Export Administration, Bureau of Export Administration, United States Department of Commerce (BXA) on February 19, 1999 (64 FR 9471). However, the Recommended Decision and Order of the Administration Law Judge (ALJ) was inadvertently not included with the Order of the Under Secretary. This notice is to hereby publish the December 21, 1998, Recommended and Decision Order of the ALJ.
Dated: July 21, 1999.
William A. Reinsch,
Under Secretary for Export Administration.

… 9. During the review period, the water treatment facility in Suriname used sodium fluoride to treat drinking water. Sodium fluoride was used by the ALCOA facility in Suriname to treat drinking water for people living in the Suralco refinery area. All of the sodium fluoride exported from the United States to Suriname was used by this ALCOA subsidiary facility and was fully consumed in the water treatment process. ALCOA sold the water treatment facility to the government of Suriname in July 1994. Therefore, Suralco no longer uses any sodium fluoride (See Respondent’s Answer dated January 20,
1998, page 3).

5. All of the potassium fluoride and Sodium Fluoride exports at issue in this case were sent to ALCOA’s refinery operations in Jamaica (Jamalco) and Suriname (Suralco). These refineries are located near bauxite mines. Bauxite is the raw ore for aluminum. The refineries process the bauxite so as to extract aluminum oride (alumina), which becomes the basic feedstock for ALCOA’s metal and chemical businesses. Both refineries were directly controlled by ALCOA during the period June 14, 1991 through December 7, 1995

3. Potassium fluoride is the key reagent used during the refining of alumina from its bauxite ore. Bauxite is crushed and mixed with a caustic soda solution. This solution dissolves the alumina present in the bauxite. Potassium fluoride is used to determine the level of dissolved alumina in the caustic solution. Only a small amount of potassium fluoride is used per metric ton of bauxite processed (see Respondent’s Answer dated January 20, 1998, page 2).

23. On March 13, 1991, through a notice published in the Federal Register, entitled Expansion of Foreign policy Controls on Chemical Weapons Precursors (56 Fed. Reg 10756), the Department of Commerce amended the Commerce Control List of the Export Administration Regulations (currently codified at 15 C.F.R. Parts 730–774 (1997)),2 ‘‘by expanding the number of countries for which a validated license is required for 39 precursor chemicals. Under the rule, the 39 chemicals will require a validated license for export to all destinations except NATO member countries, Australia, Austria, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland.’’ Potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride were included on the list of 39 chemicals

… Of all the aggravating factors in this case, one is particularly damming—that the Respondent, over a period of four and one-half (4.5) years, made 50 separate exports of potassium fluoride and/or sodium fluoride in violation of the Export Administration Regulations (emphasis added). Importantly, ALCOA is not a new or small company that doesn’t understand the foreign export regulatory process. Quite to the contrary, the Respondent is a large multinational corporation which had a separate division (Export Supply Division) specifically dedicated to receiving requisitions, locating suppliers, purchasing products, and shipping the requested items in accordance with applicable export licensing requirements. Thus, ALCOA’s conduct, under this backdrop, was flatly inexcusable and the fact that the violations were not intentional or willful is only relevant to the fact that a federal criminal indictment was not handed down. Respondent’s failure to comprehend the change in the Federal Register Notice, given the existence of its Export Supply Division, is also particularly troubling.1 Moreover, the fact that the unlawful shipments consisted of precursors for chemical weapons, regardless of the lack of any potential diversion in these instances, is not something that should be viewed as a technical oversight and is clearly an aggravating factor.

In mitigation, ALCOA argues that had it applied for the necessary validated licenses, they would have been presumptively granted. This argument misses the point. Over the past 20 years, a terrorist threat has developed to our Republic and our interests aboard. In order to protect our country and our interests, laws and regulations were passed/implemented to allow the government to monitor and regulate the export of precursor chemicals and if necessary, prevent any such exports that pose a clear and present danger. Given the huge number of exports from the United States, how is the government suppose to monitor the export of precursor chemicals if it doesn’t know that the shipments were being made over a four and one-half year period? ALCOA responds that it filed under general license G–DEST and implies that the government was aware of these 50 separate exports over a four and one-half year period (See Respondent’s Answer dated January 20, 1998, page 8). I disagree. The Respondent did not submit any evidence to support this position. The Respondent cannot shift its responsibility to the government to do that which it is legally required to do. Given the volume of such exports and the limited public resources to regulate these shipments, at the refineries of the Respondent’s subsidiary companies in Jamaica and Suriname. Once again, ALCOA misses the point. The crucial point here is that the government was deprived of possible vital information in its fight to control terrorism. In other words, if the world-wide export of chemicals/biological agents were a puzzle being put together by a U.S. Department of Commerce security team, this information constituted 50 pieces of that puzzle that the government did not have. While it turned out that there was no problem, the fact remains that the government did not have the whole picture. Without the whole picture, or in this case, all of the information about precursor chemical exports, catastrophic errors in preventative decision-making could have occurred.

… The Respondent states that anything more than a nominal fine in this case is unreasonable. In support of this position, ALCOA argues that recent BXA enforcement orders based on settlement agreements establish a range from $2,000 per violation to $5,000 per violation, large portions of which were suspended. The Respondent cites the following settlements in support of it’s argument that the government’s proposed $7,500 per violation is excessive and inconsistent with past BXA practice:

… 3. Sierra Rutil America, Inc. case—The Respondent was charged with eight unlicensed exports of sodium fluoride to Sierra Leone over a two year period in violation of § 787.6. The settlement resulted in a $30,000 fine or $3,750 per violation with half of the fine remitted on probation. This case did not involve exports to controlled or affiliated entities.

5. Snytex case—The Respondent was charged with 13 violations of unlawfully exporting hydrogen fluoride in violation of § 787.2. The fine was $65,000 or $5,000 per violation. One half of the fine was remitted for 2 years and then waived if there were no further violations.

6. Palmeros Forwarding case—The Respondent was charged with 10 violations wherein it used export control documents which represented that the Syntex hydrogen fluoride did not need export licenses. The fine was $50,000 or $5,000 per violation with a two year denial of export privileges. The fine was export privilege denial were suspended on probation.

The Respondent argues in mitigation that it has no prior record of violations. I find this argument is entitled to little or no weight given the fact that for four and one-half years, the Respondent committed one hundred violations of the EAR. Indeed, It is not the prior record that is important here, but the aggravating factor of 100 violations and the Indeed, the government might well have opted to argue in a criminal forum that ALCOA’s conduct was so grossly negligent as to constitute a willful disregard of federal law. In this case, the amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct on the part of the Respondent must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the Respondent is required to exercise caution commensurate with that increased risk. Since the Respondent was dealing with precursors for chemical weapons, the March 13, 1991 Federal Register Notice constructively put it on notice that it must exercise a great amount of care because the risk is great. It failed to do so.

Importantly, the government voluntarily lowered the sanction bar all the way down to the level of an administrative civil penalty in this case. That having been done, the Respondent argues that the government is being harsh and should lower the bar further. In effect, the Respondent is attempting to have the government negotiate with itself. This is wrong. Based upon the detailed discussion set forth above, I find the appropriate sanction for each of these unlawful shipments is $10,000. The Respondent is a huge multi-national corporation. As such, a $10,000 penalty per violation is minuscule for ALCOA who describes itself as ‘‘one of the world’s leading producers of aluminum.* * *’’. At no time during this proceeding, did ALCOA’s counsel raise financial hardships for mitigating any civil penalty. At some point, ALCOA has to stand up and take responsibility for it’s gross and long-standing breach of legal duty. Conversely, the United States government must set its civil penalties at a high enough level to insure that large multi-national corporations don’t ignore the law and if they get caught, merely consider the fine as a cost of doing business…

After fully considering the arguments of the parties as to the appropriate sanction in this case, I find that the Respondent’s civil penalty shall be $10,000 for each of the 100 violations for a total of $1,000,000. While this assessment exceeds that requested by the government, I find that it is warranted under the facts of this case. The passage of the Export Administration Act of 1979 had one main purpose – to control exports from the United States to other countries…