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Negotiating the Right to Know: Rhone-Poulenc and Manchester, Texas (a-1)

In: Business and Management

Submitted By sydmul32
Words 1744
Pages 7
Introduction/ Company Background:
Rhone-Poulenc (rP) is a French chemical company whose plant manufactures and recycles sulfuric acid. The plant also operates as an incinerator that burns liquid waste that contains sulfur. Until 1985, only 3% of its global sales were coming from the United States. From 1985 to 1990 the company’s income doubled from $7.48 billion to $15.48 billion respectively. The reason for this was that during this 5-year period the company implemented an ambitious growth strategy, making eighteen separate purchases of facilities in the U.S. As a result, rP moved up from twelfth to seventh on the list of the world’s largest chemical companies. Among the eighteen separate purchases made was the acquisition of a facility in Manchester, Texas. The plant facility in Manchester has acid coming in and out, shipped by railroad tankers and barges. Only a few local people worked in this facility. At this time the company’s plant manager was Bill Colvin. Its expansion is considered to have been too ambitious for it’s chemical company. Rhone-Poulenc’s case involves problems dealing with failed leadership, poor communication and its relationship with it’s neighboring Manchester community.
Case/ Problem
In 1991 Rhone-Poulenc plant management, had no contact with the local community of Manchester. Very few member of the local community worked for the facility. During this year, Poulenc sought a modification permit for incinerating hazardous waste, a requirement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reclassify certain hazardous materials. The permit modification would allow Poulenc to burn hazardous household waste. As part of the permitting process, the company was required to hold an informational meeting. Only a few key members of the community were notified of the public meeting by letter.
Carol Alvarado, a voting precinct’s judge and president of the Manchester Civic Association learned about the meeting. She went door-to-door informing other member of the community about the impending public meeting regarding the modification permit that the company desired. The residents were concerned about public safety in the case of an accident. The purpose of the meeting was to explain the proposed permit modification request. Over fifty citizens showed up and dressed down Poulenc. At the informal meeting of November 21, 1991, Diane Olmos stood up and talked about her experienced of how her husband died of cancer because they were living next to a toxic waste disposal company similar to Rhone-Poulenc. Afterwards, Carol Alvarado stood up and asked why the company had not notified more citizens about the meeting. One member of the community couldn’t believe that the company’s solution for toxic leaks was to have the residents close their windows and doors, and to turn off the AC. The community addressed the issue involving the tankers full of sulfuric acid that would pass daily by the elementary school. The smell of sulfuric acid was so bad that the teachers would have to open the windows to air out the school. Finally, members of the community demanded that another well-publicized meeting be held, and Bill Colvin agreed showing an act of cooperation.
Carol Alvarado took on a leadership role in this matter and because of her position as precinct judge, she was able to able to enlist and secure the support of elected government officials at the federal, state and local levels of government. Carol and others encouraged Texan United, an experienced advocacy group with a track record against chemical companies, to get more actively involved with the case. Along the way, Carol discovered that the Texas Water Commission could be forced to require a Class III rather than a Class II permit that would require a formal public hearing prior to granting the permit. Bill Colvin later learned that Carol had gotten the Texas Water Commission to require a formal public hearing on the permit modification. The new public hearing was set for June 30, 1992 which would include an official hearing examiner, careful rules of conduct, transcripts of the meeting, and designation of official parties.
Little did they know that two weeks before the June 30 scheduled public meeting a tragic event would occur. On June 16, 1992, after loading sulfur dioxide, a truck mistakenly pulled away while still being hooked to a feed line. This cause a release of sulfur dioxide into the air causing fumes to spread to the nearby Newport Shipyards. As a result twenty-seven workers were overcome with respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting while seven workers were in critical and serious conditions.
Course Related Materials
Some topics reviewed in class that relate to Rhone-Poulenc’s case include leadership, communication, negotiation and ethics. As a company, Rhone-Poulenc Co. lacks good leadership and fails to get things done. They also have poor communication with the Manchester community. The community needs to be aware of what is going on with the company. They need to know what safety precautions they should take in the event an accident occurs. So far the solutions that the company were offering were very poor.
Rhone-Poulenc is considered to be a pacesetting type of leader according to the article “Leadership That Gets The Results.” This means that they are the type of company that sets high standards for their performance. They are a company whose leadership is very obsessive to get things done quickly resulting in an overall negative impact. We see an example of this when Rhone-Poulenc decided to make eighteen separate purchases in the U.S. in five years. Like any other company, they want to expand globally and make high profits. This type of leadership isn’t a good fit for the company. The tragic event that took place on June 16, 1992 caused thirty-four people to be in serious condition. There is no doubt that Rhone-Poulenc should worry and care more about its workers and the people living in this community.
Having good communication is another skill that the company lacks. When the company decided to have its first public informal meeting with the community to discuss the issuance of a permit, only a few residents were informed about it. Taking out ads on the newspaper to inform the community about the meeting wasn’t enough. According to Carol, there where many ways to notify the residents of the community about the meeting. Rhone-Poulenc Company also has poor listening skills. One important thing that the community wanted was more information about the company’s emergency plans, chemical releases, and transportation plans. Another important thing that the community wanted was for the company to change its perceived attitude towards the community. Rhone-Poulenc didn’t do much to inform them about what is going on with the plant.
Plant manager Bill Colvin tried to meet with Carol Alvarado to learn about the community’s concern but this wasn’t enough. Instead of focusing on and listening to the community’s concerns and emotions, the company’s main goal was only to obtain the new permit.

Recommendations In order to operate efficiently, rP needs to revisit its mission statement, focusing on the values of integrity, safety, quality, innovation, and partnership. The company needs to rebuild public relations and address its shortcomings in safety procedures. The company should incline more towards to the affiliative type leadership. The affiliative leader says, “People come first.” As a company that manufactures and recycles sulfuric acid, and burns liquid, their main concern should be the health and safety of the Manchester community. Teachers and children at school are affected by the stench of sulfur that is transported through tankers. Their health and lives may be exposed to risk. Rhode-Poulenc should also be more concerned about its workers and provide more safety in the plant. It needs to implement a plan for health and public safety. To do this, we recommend the acknowledgment of public demands, meaning more information about the company’s emergency plans, chemical releases, transportation plans and change in it’s perceived attitude towards the community. The past accidents are evidence of a necessary overhaul in safety procedures. We highly recommend a complete review of all operational safeguards. This is very important because an official initiative should be enacted to demonstrate management’s full backing. The focus should be on environmental and health protection, with training for safety and security.
Rhone-Poulenc should research and adapt to the industry’s best safety practices. The company should also get feedback from its workers and place checks and balances in critical areas. For instance, two people should sign off where any hazardous leak may occur. Other ways of increasing safety practices include creating a committee to plan emergency procedures and informing local fire stations on what hazardous chemicals are used in the company’s operations. Preparation of chemical emergency response plans and review plans should be done annually. The company should in fact also hire an independent 3rd party auditor to review safety regulations.
The root of the public relations problem comes from lack of communication and community involvement. rP effects too much of it’s surrounding to act as a silent partner and has neglected to recognize its influence on the environment. A public hearing on June 30, 1991 brought many of the Manchester residents out en masse. Many of the community members were angry and frightened for the future of the company and their personal safety. The company should have done what Texans United did and gone door to door to inform people about the company’s new plan, safety precautions and other important things that they needed to know. As stated in the article “Investigative Negotiation,” Colvin should of sought more to understand the community’s constraints.
To diffuse tensions, our suggestion would be to create a forum of open dialogue between rP and the community. Here, the public would be able to express their concerns and also communicate with the company’s representatives. This will allow the company to stay active and remedy any problems before they gain momentum. This will also address the request for company to be more transparent, giving better access to public information.
To focus on a long-term relationship, we recommend investing in employment opportunities and youth education for the Manchester community. The company will gain a pool of potential workers, educate kids, give back to the community and increase approval or mitigates public outrage. If rP becomes invaluable to the community, it becomes a public disadvantage to hinder company production. This will be a step in gaining the trust of the people.…...

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