Late last month, a pair of Democratic legislators received opposition letters to their environmental bills from the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Among the reasons cited for the chemical bans in question: They would interfere with the administration’s Green Chemistry Initiative.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Environmental Protection Agency announced the initiative in May. The concept of green chemistry relies on a number of principles, among the most important being considering the entire lifecycle of products, cutting down on waste and finding viable alternatives to the most toxic chemicals. The initial announcement was met with acclaim by the chemical industry, environmental groups and many of the legislators most closely association with chemical legislation.
On June 29, DTSC sent out opposition letters to three bills, according to communication director Susie Wong: AB 706 by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and SB 456 and SB 973 by Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. All three letters were signed by director Maureen Gorsen and used very similar language. In each, Gorsen “strongly recommends” that legislation “be postponed until the Secretary of the Environmental Protection has developed a comprehensive set of recommendations pursuant to the Cal/EPA Green Chemistry Initiative.”
Both legislators said they were unclear on how their bills conflicted with the Green Chemistry Initiative. Simitian is the legislator most closely identified with the Green Chemistry concept. He said his two bills–SB 973 would require the Department of Toxic Substances Control to compile a list of “chemicals of concern,” while SB 456 would ban diacetyl, a controversial chemical found in microwave popcorn–are great examples of Green Chemistry.
“I think this governor deserves tremendous credit for laying out a very progressive environmental vision for the state,” Simitian said. “But it’s time to roll up our shirt sleeves and make it real.”
Leno’s AB 706 would ban a class of likely carcinogenic chemicals from
furniture foam. While the correspondence did not come directly from the administration, Leno said, state agencies do not send out opposition letters without the administration’s approval.
“I’m well aware that the administration is communicating that they have a problem with the chemical bills,” Leno said.
Rich Brausch, legislative director at the DTSC, said they opposed the bills because they were “premature.” The idea of the initiative–scheduled to start delivering recommendation next year–is to create a framework that includes lists of safe alternatives.
“This is not some far-off thing,” Brausch said. “We are in the midst of an aggressive process.”
All three bills, and several others, also have gotten numerous opposition letters from other state agencies, as well, though these do not explicitly mention the Green Chemistry Initiative. For instance, Simitian said he anticipated the May 8 opposition letter he got from the Department of Finance on SB 456. Part of Finance’s job is to limit government spending, though Simitian said he believes they often oppose bills without taking into account the money they might save.
But he and Leno have also gotten opposition letters recently from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Department of Industrial Relations. Both DTSC and OEHHA operate under Cal/EPA.
Sam Delson, deputy director of OEHHA, said that staffers at his agency and others have been meeting with legislators to try to explain the problem. For instance, he said Leno’s bill would ban an entire class of chemicals without determining safe levels of exposure or viable alternatives. He added that OEHHA asked Leno to do a more limited bill, but he refused. Other bills on the opposition list have had similar problems that could cause them to complicate the development of the initiative.
“There is not a blanket policy of opposing every toxics bill because of the Green Chemistry Initiative,” Delson said. “It means that there is a higher bar.”
But legislators say they’re not clear where that bar is. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, has gotten several opposition letters on a pair of her toxics bills, AB 514, an Assembly diacetyl ban, and AB 515, a workplace chemical-exposure bill. These letters cite conflict with a different set of emerging standards, a workplace health standards effort being led by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Nevertheless, Lieber said she found it troubling that DTSC was citing the Green Chemistry Initiative in opposing near-term environmental regulations.
“My hats off to the governor for having agreed to do this initiative,” Lieber said. “But people are talking about it around the building as if it’s more than just a Web site at this stage. It isn’t.”
Michael P. Wilson, a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, which co-sponsored a Green Chemistry symposium with Cal/EPA last month, said that targeted chemical phase-outs are one way for government to motivate companies to invest in new green-chemistry solutions. Such bans also can result in new hazards if companies are not required to disclose information on the safety of alternative chemicals, he said, though this is unlikely to be the case with diacetyl.
“In the case of diacetyl, for example, we’re looking at a substance so acutely toxic that it warrants immediate action,” Wilson said. “In my view, this is not inconsistent with the goals of Green Chemistry in California.”
All of the bills in question face significant industry opposition. The California Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council are listed as officially opposed on several.
Many of the authors say they also have support from key industry groups. Leno’s AB 706 is supported by California Furniture Manufacturers Association, California Professional Firefighters and several other firefighters’ organizations. Supporters say the brominated and chlorinated fire retardants in furniture are leading to sky-high rates of several life-threatening cancers among firefighters.
Worse, they say, California is helping poison the rest of the country. The state has a 1975 regulation requiring furniture foam to be able to withstand 12 seconds of exposure to a lighted match–a standard Leno said is outdated and ignores less toxic application of fire retardants to the fabric on the outside of furniture. Because California is such a big market, AB 706 supporters say, this largely has become a national standard causing other states to also have unnecessarily toxic furniture.
“Because we’re California, they assume we’re doing the right thing environmentally,” said Russell Long, vice president of Friends of the Earth.
Legislators indicated they were going to continue to push their bills, possibly forcing the governor to veto them. In any case, legislators and environmentalists say they are not buying the administration’s argument.
“Green chemistry is not a magic wand we can wave and have all safe chemicals,” said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, who did much of the early research on fire retardants. “Each of these toxic-chemicals bills should be judged on its own merits. Just because California is moving toward Green Chemistry doesn’t mean we should stop regulating chemicals.”
Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at