Lake Michigan has always figured prominently in Mitt Romney's personal history. During a 2011 visit to Michigan, his wife, Ann, talked about growing up at her family cottage on the lake and spending "all our time swimming" there. She said she celebrated her 16th birthday with Mitt at Michigan's official summer residence on Mackinac Island, while Mitt's father, George Romney, was governor. That's when she says she fell in love.
In certain circles, Romney's legend as a defender of the lakes is well-established: when John Nevin, a former Michigan environmental official, endorsed Romney's 2008 presidential bid in the Detroit Free Press, he wrote that Romney was "the only sure bet to restore, protect and sustain our Great Lakes."
Nevin alluded to the disturbing denigration of the lakes by chemical pollutants, and wrote that Romney "believes the cleanup of these toxic hotspots" has been "far too slow," bogged down by "legal wrangling."
But in reality, Romney's own business career connects him closely to those "toxic hotspots" — in particular, his relations with the two companies primarily responsible for the contamination of Lake Michigan.
Shortly after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1975, Romney began working for Boston Consulting Group, where one of his biggest clients was the now-defunct boat-engine and powerboat manufacturer Outboard Marine Corporation.
"Mitt was out working in the plant and in my office," said Charles Strang, who was then OMC's CEO and chair. "I was one of the first persons to ever employ Mitt."
From 1953 to 1976, OMC dumped from 1.1 to 1.7 million pounds of a liquid chemical, PCBs, in Lake Michigan. OMC bought approximately 11 million pounds of hydraulic fluid containing PCBs from Monsanto, the sole American producer of the coolant and lubricant used in OMC's die-casting machines. While PCBs were found "possibly carcinogenic" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1978, and "probably carcinogenic" in 1987, they'd been called "objectionably toxic" since the 1940s and were partially banned by the government in 1973. PCBs have been shown to have chronically toxic effects on the thyroid, stomach, liver, kidneys, and immune system. Congress passed a complete ban of PCBs in 1976, but by then the damage was done.
In a 1996 report, the Environmental Protection Agency projected that certain fish species in Lake Michigan would not reach acceptable PCB levels until 2046, warning that frequent consumption of large lake trout and salmon could lead to an increased risk of cancer.
OMC wasn't the only offender: Monsanto also shipped PCBs to Green Bay/Fox River paper companies and the Tecumseh Product Company in Sheboygan, two Wisconsin Superfund sites on the lake, as well as to plants along the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic Rivers, all of which added PCBs to the lake. But in a 1981 report, the EPA identified the air, ground and water pollution produced by OMC in Lake Michigan as the cause of "the highest known concentrations of uncontrollable PCBs in the country." OMC even repeatedly dredged the harbor at Waukegan, Ill. where its headquarters and plant were located, to maintain its 23-foot depth, dumping the PCB-contaminated sediment it collected in open water as far as six miles offshore.
The EPA sued OMC in 1978, adding Monsanto as a defendant in 1980, but the cleanup effort was delayed for a dozen years, in part because OMC refused to allow EPA inspectors onto the site, even ones with a warrant.
In 1986 a federal appeals court found that OMC and Monsanto "caused the PCB problem in the harbor," "fought the government every possible inch of the way," and were "a major reason why the PCB problem has not been resolved." Currently, an $18.5 million cleanup funded by President Obama's stimulus program is razing the OMC plant, trying to complete the job begun in the 1990s by the EPA.
Strang, now 91, remained a director of OMC until 1996. He told The Daily Beast that Boston Consulting was hired to suggest strategies to combat new Japanese competitors. He said Boston Consulting was not asked to advise on dealing with the PCB crisis, though BCG was certainly working for Strang when the crisis exploded.
Romney played a much larger role with Monsanto, however, helping to craft the corporate strategic response to the PCB and other controversies that dogged the company in the late 1970s and early '80s. He did so as a consultant for Bain & Company, which Romney joined in 1977 after leaving BCG. He stayed at Bain until 1985, when he took charge of its spin-off Bain Capital. Monsanto was Bain & Company's biggest client and Romney quickly assumed a pivotal advisory role with the chemical colossus. He was such a hit with company brass that Ralph Willard, a Bain founder and the team leader for the company's decade-long consulting work with Monsanto, told the Boston Globe in 2007 that Monsanto executives started bypassing him and going directly to Romney. Willard said that Romney had so mastered the chemical industry issues of the late 1970s that he sounded like he went to engineering school rather than business school.
In the same article, Monsanto CEO Jack Hanley said of Romney: "Every contact we had, I came away impressed." Hanley, along with Bain & Company founder Bill Bain, became so close to Romney that he came up with the idea in 1983 of creating Bain Capital for Romney to run. Former Bain and Monsanto executives say that the Bain team was involved in the company's tactical response to the multi-faceted PCB controversy.