Necessary explanations

(Español) Respuesta al artículo “Romana y el amianto” de Eliane Brum, publicado en la versión digital de “El País” el 25 de Noviembre de 2014

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Regarding the article, “Stephan Schmidheiny, asbestos magnate, sentenced to 18 years in prison for ‘permanent intentional environmental disaster’” [originally written in Spanish]

Many conclusions can be drawn regarding Stephen Schmideiny’s career from the article, “Stephan Schmidheiny, asbestos magnate, sentenced to 18 years in prison for ‘permanent intentional environmental disaster,’” published in June 2013, which require the following explanations:

Before becoming an asbestos magnate, in the 13 years between his inheriting Swiss Eternit in 1976 at the age of 29, and selling his shares in 1989, Stephan Schmidheiny was the global leader in the elimination of asbestos in industrial processing.

In 1976, just months after assuming the leadership of Eternit, he held a meeting with managers and directors requesting that they take on the challenge of implementing better safety measures for the handling of asbestos, a policy that would become formalized with the use of the “New Technology” program. In 1981, before the establishment of all state regulations and policies, Schmidheiny announced his decision that Eternit would stop using asbestos and, in 1984, most of Eternit’s production replaced this component with another that was paper-pulp based.

In 1989, after investing millions of dollars in programs on the safe handling of asbestos and the research to find a substitute—which led to the unviability of several of Eternit’s plants that were later shut down due to Schmidheiny’s decision to end the use of asbestos—he decided to sell all his shares in Eternit and completely and definitively retired from the asbestos industry.

Wanting to make Stephen Schmidheiny synonymous with the asbestos industry, means building a façade that the true asbestos magnates of the world, past and present, need in order to remain hidden, since 2/3 of the world’s countries still allow the use of asbestos, while Schmidheiny abandoned this industry 25 years ago.

Reference is made to the trial held in Turin, in which Stephen Schmidheiny who, as head of Swiss Eternit, was a shareholder of Eternit in Italy between 1976 and 1986, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and ordered pay 88 million euros in compensation for damages from the use of asbestos. What is not mentioned is that as a result of some irregularities identified in the proceedings which deprived Schmidheiny of an impartial trial and the right to a fair trial, the sentence is being appealed in Rome’s Court of Annulment. The irregularities that the court is analyzing are:

  • An accusation claiming that Stephan Schmidheiny was the “de facto director” or “de facto employer,” even though he never carried out operational duties at Eternit in Italy.
  • Retroactively implementing laws that were not in effect when Stephan was a shareholder of Eternit in Italy.
  • The trial covers a period (1952–2008) that exceeds Stephan Schmidheiny’s association as shareholder of Eternit in Italy by decades. In 1952, Schmidheiny was only 5 years old.
  • The investment made in the Eternit Italy plants to improve safety conditions during the Swiss period (1976–1986) was not taken into consideration.
  • The defense was unable to access medical records which the accusations were based on nor allowed to present studies about the Swiss period.
  • Eternit is the only one being charged even though, for example, another six companies manufactured with asbestos in Cassale Monferrato, the city where Eternit had one of its plants.
  • The president of the Court of Appeals in Turin publicly demonized Stephan, comparing him to Nazism, violating his right to a fair and impartial trial.

Given the amount of irregularities in the legal proceedings, it would seem that the prosecutors were using the trial to fabricate the guilty party they needed instead of seeking the truth that the victims deserve.

The article mentions VIVA Trust, created in 2003, as the financial backer for Fundación Avina, suggesting that these funds would be linked to the profits generated by asbestos. Based on this incorrect information, it is implied that Fundación Avina is used “to enhance his public image.” It is absolutely wrong to link VIVA Trust to asbestos, given that it is a trust established with the stocks and investments that Stephan Schmidheiny had in Grupo Nueva, formed in 1998 by Latin American companies that are completely unattached to that industry, as it has been 20 years since Schmidheiny began to diversify his investments, and 10 years since he severed ties with the Eternit group. So, it is clear that Fundación Avina could never have been used to enhance his public image since it never received asbestos-related money nor did it ever support any activities linked to that agenda. On the other hand, VIVA Trust is one of its financial sources, but it also co-invests millions of dollars in Latin America along with other donating entities, companies and multilateral funds of international cooperation.

Further on, the article refers to remarks by Judge Ogge, the president of the tribunal, made at one of the trial’s hearings, who compared the conference in Wansee, organized by the Nazis in 1942 to discuss the deportation of the Jews, to the meeting in Neuss that Stephan Schmidheiny held in 1976, just a few months after taking over Eternit. According to the interpretation in the article, Schmidheiny, in “Neuss, before an audience of 30 people, all managers of Eternit companies in Europe,” knowing “that asbestos posed a health risk,” stated “that they should be aware of this but if other people found out they would have to shut down or take other financial measures.

Therefore, he told the directors that they had to be careful about the information they gave, to say that asbestos was not harmful, did not cause death and that the risk could be controlled.” What actually happened in Neuss was that a 29-year-old man, who had recently taken over a company with tens of thousands of employees around world, gathered the Eternit directors from all the countries where Swiss Eternit had holdings and told them that, in view of the suspected dangers of handling asbestos, they should implement the necessary measures to protect the workers’ health as well as the environment. This would be later ratified by concrete actions: the investment of millions of dollars in programs related to the safe handling of asbestos, the replacement of that mineral with another paper-based material in 1984, and his definitive separation from that industry in 1989.

In the 13 years (1976–1989) Schmidheiny was involved in the asbestos industry, his actions, as well as the various recognitions he received worldwide, demonstrate on their own that, having inherited a problem, he handed down numerous solutions.

All information regarding the business and philanthropic development of Stephan Schmidheiny will soon be available at “The Schmidheiny Story: The Sustainable Truth.”

For more information about Fundación Avina, we invite you to visit the institution’s website, www.avina.net

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