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Will the Chemical Industry Step Up to the Plate?

By Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families 

I want to start by thanking everyone who called, emailed and watched your Senators before and during the hearing on the Safe Chemicals Act on November 17th. Your attention made a difference.   It helped build our momentum and shaped the positive outcomes of the hearing. Our press statement represents our short take on what the hearing meant, but I thought our supporters and close observers of this debate might appreciate more detail with an update on what has been taking place in Washington.

The Senators

I was impressed by the turnout and the discussion by both Democratic and Republican Senators. First and foremost, Senator Lautenberg deserves credit for going the extra mile to make his process inclusive and increase the chances that legislation really moves. As I understand it, he reached out to Senator Inhofe (R-OK) to initiate the bipartisan discussion process that both offices have conducted for the last several months.

“First and foremost, Senator Lautenberg deserves credit for going the extra mile to make his process inclusive…”

Senator Inhofe’s staff has been professional and responsive during that process, and I appreciate that his comments at the hearing held out the possibility that he would continue to work with Senator Lautenberg on reform. Senator Crapo (R-ID) was also very sensible and constructive in his statements, noting the contrast between how well the committee has handled this issue and the otherwise “toxic environment” on Capitol Hill. He’s worked in a bipartisan way on disease clusters in Idaho and seems especially attuned to these issues.

The Democrats were especially impressive at the hearing. Senator Carper (DE) has a very large hometown employer in the form of DuPont, so when he says he would like to work toward an agreement on chemical policy it really means something. Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) gave a powerful opening statement, grounding this issue in the everyday health concerns of American families. But it was Senators Cardin (D-MD), Merkley (D-OR), Udall (D-NM), and Whitehouse (D-RI) who provided the real drama of the hearing, by effectively focusing the hearing on the question of the day: will the chemical industry step up to the plate?

The Industry

The question about ‘stepping up’ gets to the heart of the matter, because the American Chemistry Council (ACC)- the main trade association for chemical makers – is a few years into a straddling act that is difficult to maintain with credibility. ACC renounced its opposition to reform early in 2009 and published its own principles for reform that fall. Since then however, it has steadfastly opposed the reform proposals offered in both houses in strident terms even though each has lined up pretty well with its principles (for example, that a reformed TSCA be “risk-based”). ACC has done this while also starving the legislative process of the kind of constructive engagement that would be required to reach some kind of agreement.

“CSPA expressed a willingness to work with the Senators on a bipartisan outcome and cited its engagement with our coalition as reaching a point that is close to producing recommendations for the Committee to consider.”

ACC’s posture was in striking contrast to that of the other industry group represented at the hearing, the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), which represents major producers of “formulated products,” like Procter and Gamble and SC Johnson. CSPA expressed a willingness to work with the Senators on a bipartisan outcome and cited its engagement with our coalition as reaching a point that is close to producing recommendations for the Committee to consider. While nothing in its statement bound its companies to any particular provision, it was clearly signaling a willingness to move forward in seeking a compromise. I should note that at least one of the issues we’ve discussed with CSPA, “confidential business information,” is genuinely hard. It reflects real tradeoffs between the public’s right-to-know – a core principle for us – and the need for individual companies to protect their investment in particular products.  If we can reach agreement, it will not be because these issues are easy.

Unfortunately, whatever doubts the hearing raised about whether the chemical industry is serious about reform have only been amplified in the days since. The ACC quickly seized on the tough questioning from the Democratic Senators to engage in a fierce behind-the-scenes campaign with its member companies and Senate staff, and within Washington’s lobbying community, to claim it was victimized by an ambush. ACC even cited the hearing as the reason for canceling a long scheduled meeting where senior executives of the industry and non-profit leaders were to review the substantial substantive progress of a dialogue that’s been underway for the last several months on the major issues in reform.  ACC has now made clear to us it will not participate in any dialogue that has anything to do with legislation moving in this Congress.

It’s very hard for me to believe that longtime professionals in a major trade association and its member companies are as thin-skinned as this reaction suggests. ACC’s testimony was provocative, as was its blunt refusal to work with Senator Lautenberg’s bill. The response by Democrats was predictable. It’s also hard to credit assertions by some in industry that the maneuver was necessary because the next Congress will be a more favorable time to legislate, based on an assumption that Republicans will win back the Senate.  

Even taking these assertions at face value, the recent actions don’t make sense if ACC’s goal truly is – as it consistently claims – to achieve a compromise on reform. The Senate is a place where even a small number of Senators can block something, so deliberately thumbing your nose at the Democrats on the Committee now doesn’t make sense even if you think they will be the minority next year. Similarly, the organizations in our coalition have something the chemical industry doesn’t: credibility with the American public on health and safety issues. That credibility will be essential for any legislative effort to succeed.

The purpose of dialogue was to see if we could agree sufficiently on the issues in reform that we’d be willing to, in effect, share that credibility with the industry to enact an honest compromise. So the only way to interpret the events around this hearing and the inside-the-beltway campaign that has followed, is that the chemical industry – or at least those represented by the American Chemistry Council – has been called out. That it really doesn’t support meaningful reform. That any impression we’ve had to the contrary was deliberately designed to soften its image and ride out the Obama Administration and the hold of Democrats over at least one House of Congress. Through these actions the chemical industry is sending a profoundly cynical message to the American public right now.

That message is especially disappointing. There has never been a more sincere and sustained engagement with the chemical industry on the part of health and environmental leaders than in the last six months. But if the industry cannot or will not credibly participate in the national debate, reformers will have to look elsewhere for the changes needed to protect public health: to our state governments, to major sectors of the market place who can use their purchasing power to deselect problematic chemicals, and to consumers themselves, increasingly armed with the information they need to protect their families.

It’s hard to reconcile the seemingly constructive efforts of individual chemical companies over the last several months – which have made an impression on a broad swath of health and environmental leaders – with the inside-the-beltway antics of their leading trade association. Unfortunately, at this point, we have to judge these companies by the action of their association and urge them to reverse course.